It had been a full year since The Hiding began, but now the people realised it was time to find new ways of escape.
Their first attempts were sincere. Convinced they were coming out of this better. More skilled, smarter, more organised, fitter, lighter, happier. Approval from friends and strangers just a click away made it all seem worthwhile. Momentarily victorious.
But the fear and questioning never really went away. A constant whispering behind the busy facade. How sweetly naive the people were during The Hiding.
Thankfully, they tried.
Thankfully, there was still time.
Sitting on the damp moss and dirt, her back leaning against the rough yet reassuring bark, her hands skimmed through a tuft of grass beside her. She’d come here to meditate but it wasn’t happening today. Instead she sat, letting her thoughts flow, surrendering to the strong shoulder of nature.
Suddenly, her fingers became aware of a distinct texture. She grabbed it. Hidden between the bright green blades of grass, was a small piece of paper. Unfolding it, three questions echoed through the glen as if she had read the words out loud;
But what do you really feel?
What do you wish you could say?
What are you hiding from?
Instinctively she scanned the landscape to see if anyone was watching. The only response was the sound of birds chirping in the distance. She stared at the paper again. Just reading the questions left her feeling stripped bare. Vulnerability was new place for her. Tipping her head back to gaze up at the green leaves that wiggled back and forth gently with the breeze, she thought about how strange it was that some leaves didn't move in time with the wind. Some do. But some will sway back and forth slowly even if the wind blows hard and fast. Others, like these, keep a quick dance pace even in a slow steady breeze.
She tried. But the answers wouldn’t come.
Hugging her knees to her chest she decided she wasn't going to cry today. Sitting up a little straighter, trying to release the constant tension in her back and shoulders, she plucked a long blade of grass, stood up and tied the note to a twig on her faithful tree. Then, twisting her long, chestnut hair like a rope, she spiralled it into a bun onto the top of her head and walked quietly home. Responsibilities were waiting.
Some days later, having found a quiet moment for herself again, she returned without really knowing why. That's usually how it happened. That's how she'd found this place to begin with when she was a child, just aimlessly walking. Like every other time, the familiar branches welcomed her. But today, there was a new gift.
Her note was still tied to the twig. But around it, more notes were delicately tied in place.
I'm scared this could be the end of the world.
I don't know who I am anymore and I'm not even sure that I ever really did.
The only best friend I've ever really had moved away when I was 9 and it still hurts today. I've never let anyone else in because of it.
My anger is an uprising of fear and history repeated.
I'll never win my mother's approval.
Instinctively she reached into her bag to get her phone for a photo. Then she stopped. No. Not today. Sifting through the contents of her bag she searched; phone, keys, gum, gum wrappers, ID, antibacterial gel, an extra mask carefully sealed in a plastic bag, a fire breathing dragon her youngest son had drawn for her last week or possibly last month, a bottle of pink nail polish she bought on a whim and never opened. Nothing to write with.
Her shoulders sagging a little more than before she thought of the people who had left their notes. She wondered who they were. She created characters for each of them, imagining them more clearly. She thought about how it was best she didn't have a pen. What could she possibly have to say that would even help? Even be heard? Instead, she took the bottle of nail polish and a little self consciously, painted a small heart on each note.
Glancing at her phone she saw it was time to get home. The boys needed baths, homework needed to be checked and emailed to teachers. Her husband would be watching football tonight.
The next day feeling a little excited, and a little embarrassed for feeling excited, she quickly walked back to the tree to see if anyone else had left a note. Along the way she told herself how ridiculous she was too think anyone had.
But they had.
I don't want to be taken for granted anymore. But I don't know how to make it stop.
People say I talk too much. It's true, but it's because I never know the right words to say. I talk because I want to fill the silence. Silence makes people feel like they're being judged and I never want anyone to feel bad so really nothing of what I say is very meaningful.
Why am I so terrible at baking? My family has run a bakery for three generations but I can't even make rice crispy squares!
I'm afraid to follow my dream of being a writer because I'm afraid of never being published. I can't bear to find out I'm not good at the one thing I really want to do.
I'm tired. And I'm tired of being tired.
I'm a failure at everything I do.
The exhaustion I feel each day from living in fear because of the colour of my skin.
I'm being bullied at school and I know I should tell my parents but they're already so stressed all the time. I don't want to give them something else to worry about.
I'm so sad. I always have been. And I always will.
I'm not against vaccinations but I'm scared of this vaccine and I don't want to get it but I can't tell anyone that, otherwise they'll tell me what a horrible person I am or that I'm a conspiracy theorist. I despise conflict.
I have never known how to express how I feel, because I can never decide how I feel. I don't know how anyone “knows.”
I wish I could make my wife love me again. The thought of life without her breaks me.
I’m afraid to tell my father I’m gay.
I'm angry. I'm angry because I've gained so much weight this year and even though I tell myself and everyone else that will listen that women are not defined by how they look, I have realised that part of my identity as a woman is very much wrapped up in how I look.
She painted more pink hearts.
As the weeks went on, the notes grew. So many that all the lower branches were covered like cherry blossoms in spring. Even some higher up as the people started climbing higher to find a space to leave their notes. Releasing their truths.
She painted hearts on them all.
The days became shorter and cooler and soon fire coloured leaves were scattered on the ground below. But the notes remained in place on branches and twigs, making it appear as if autumn hadn't taken the tree's leaves at all. She often wondered how many people called this place their own just as she had for so many years. Even more so during The Hiding. But maybe they were just passing by, saw the small squares of paper and decided to get a closer look. Either way, the thought made her smile.
It was particularly cold the day that she noticed something was wrong. She tried to tell herself it was the season, that the cold and damp made the branches sag as if too heavy to stand up, but she knew that wasn't why. The ache in her chest, for the one thing that had always remained constant and strong in her life, was dying.
She wrote a truth of her own.
It is my fault the tree is dying. We have released ourselves from the weight of our truths, but the tree has taken them all. From this day on, please, take one truth with you, to carry for another. Without judgement. Without advice. Without even knowing who the truth belongs to. And know that in return, someone out there has taken your dearest secret, your truth, and holds it sacred. So you too can be free. Because there is not a single one of us who is free from the burden of pain. But also, there is not a single one of us who can carry it all.
Weeks had passed since her last visit. Walking up the familiar path she could see her own truth remained but there was just one other swaying gently in the breeze. She carefully plucked it off the branch, read it, closed her eyes and breathed in the damp, fresh scent of autumn. She placed the note into her bag next to the fire breathing dragon her son had drawn months ago.
Stretching my branches up to the sky I breathed a deep sigh of relief. The people had finally begun to understand how to end The Hiding.