Once upon a time, a girl walked in the woods. The woods were dark, but there were patches of light to see by. There were squirrels chittering and scampering up trees. There were deer nibbling grass she could just make out over a rise off to her left. It wasn’t a scary woods, not like a spooky forest from storybooks. It was ordinary. It was quiet. There was a path to walk on, with footprints along it which meant that people had come this way before. Some of those footprints were her own. The girl had walked these woods for many years. But there were no people right in front of her or right behind her. For a long time she walked and assumed she was alone.
After some time, the girl walked around a bend and chanced upon another traveler. This traveler looked worse for wear. His eyes were heavily bagged and darkened, his clothes were torn.
“This wood is dangerous. This is a bad path” the man said.
“This path?” the girl asked, “Why, I’ve been walking this path my whole life and never seen any dangers! In fact, my great grandfather helped carve this path in the woods. I know this path like the back of my hand.”
The man looked thoughtful and replied, “Maybe it is safe for you, but it isn’t safe for me.”
“Maybe you should be more careful,” the girl responded, “There are rocks and things that can trip you. But if you keep your eyes open you can see all the dangers. It is a fine path. Everyone should be able to walk this path without problems”
“Maybe the path should be widened so that it would be safer, maybe there should be lights along the way” the man suggested
“Oh but then it would spoil the wood,” the girl complained, “Surely you can see that this path is perfectly sized for the woods. Do you really want people to chop down more trees to make the path wider when the path is fine the way it is? Think of how much time, money, and energy it would take to do a project like that. Not to mention the fact that we would be displacing all these helpless squirrels from their trees.”
The man did not reply, only looking at the trees.
“No,” the girl continued, “These woods are just fine, this path is just fine. Perhaps next time you decide to go walking you should come better prepared. Why, I see you don’t have a coat with you and the wood can get quite cold in the late afternoon. And you don’t have any water or any snacks with you either in case you get hungry or thirsty later on today. You don’t look very well either. Perhaps it might be best for you to go home and come back to the woods when you have what you need. I would share some of my food with you, but I barely have enough for myself. Here, you can have a sip of my water”
“I see,” the man said. He took a sip from the water bottle offered to him and gave it back.
“I must be going, I need to be along to my grandmother’s house. She is expecting me,” the girl said brightly. And on she walked, leaving the man behind her. She turned around after a few hundred feet and noticed he was just standing there in the middle of the path and hadn’t moved since she left him.
What an odd man, the girl thought. He obviously doesn’t know a thing about walking in the woods. And on she walked, pleased with herself that she had offered a stranger some of her water.
Some time later she spied two travelers walking together on the road ahead of her: a man and a woman. After walking alone for some time, the girl wanted company so she sped up a bit to catch up with them. The man and woman both had jackets. The man and woman both had bottles of water and backpacks.
These are travellers like me, the girl thought, These are travellers who know what they are doing. These will make good traveling companions.
The girl was so eager to catch up with the pair that she ran too quickly and tripped on a stray rock along the path. She tumbled to the ground, dropping her bottle of water. The top flew off and water poured out onto the dry dirt.
“Oh dear,” said the woman, “Are you alright?”
“Well,” replied the girl, “I was doing just fine until I seem to have dropped and spilled my water. This will make the rest of my journey rather more difficult.”
“I see that,” said the man, “Well we can see you are a good traveler like us. It is a shame you had an accident like this one. Here take this extra bottle of water I happen to have.”
The man handed over a bottle of water he had in his backpack. The bottle was full and cold. The girl took it gratefully and drank deeply. All that running had made her thirsty. She was very glad to have found kind people along the road.
“Thank you so much uh… Joe,” she said, noting the name on the side of the water bottle.
“You’re welcome, but my name’s not Joe, it’s Trevor,” replied the man
“Oh,” the girl exclaimed, turning to the woman now, “So you are Joe then? Is that short for Josephine?”
“No my name isn’t Joe either,” the woman responded, “It’s Diane.”
“Oh. So who is Joe?” she asked confusedly, pointing at the name on the bottle.
“Oh that,” the woman laughed, “You know I never noticed that before. That was on the bottle when we got it”
“So Joe is the name of the company who made the bottle then?” the girl asked
“Something like that,” Trevor replied
“Where did you get it? I’d love to get a bottle like this when I get back home. It is very sturdy and keeps the cold inside,” the girl asked earnestly
“We just picked it up somewhere. You know how it is,” Diane said, smiling.
That seemed to have settled that question, so the three walked together along the path in silence for some time. For a while they walked side by side, but most of the path was too narrow to do that. Sometimes the man and woman would walk together with the girl walking behind, but usually the path was too narrow for that too, allowing passage of only one at a time. Trevor would then walk in front with Diane behind him and the girl in the rear. Sometimes even when the path was wide enough the man walked in front. He was taller, the girl reasoned, and his gait was a little faster. The girl had never walked the path with someone else before, and never noticed how difficult it was to walk with others.
“So are you two walking anywhere in particular?” the girl asked once the path had widened a bit and the three could walk together again. She still had to walk a little faster than normal to keep up with the man. He never slowed his pace.
“No,” said Trevor, “We just like walking. This wood is so lovely. This path is so nice.”
“That’s what I think too,” said the girl, “This is just the loveliest path.”
“It is the best path,” Diane echoed, “Everyone should make their paths like this one.”
“I will say though,” said the girl hesitantly, “It could be a bit wider”
“What!” Trevor exclaimed, “But if we widened the path it would ruin its quaintness. This is the perfect sized path for woods like these. Think of the squirrels.”
“Yes,” Diane agreed, “Do you want us to widen it to a six lane highway? Should we pave it too to make it smoother so you don’t trip again? Do you really want to walk on a paved road in the woods?”
“Oh, no,” the girl said shakily, “I didn’t mean that. Just that maybe it could be a little…”
“See, this is the problem with young people today,” Trevor interrupted. “I have been walking this path for a long time, longer than you’ve been alive, and the path is is just perfect. Young people are always wanting things easy and smooth. They can’t even handle a little path without tripping.”
“That’s right,” Diane said, “All because you tripped doesn’t mean that the path is bad, only that you weren’t being careful. Maybe you shouldn’t run or walk so fast on the path and go more carefully.”
“Actually,” the girl replied, “This isn’t about me tripping at all. I was just thinking that if the path were wider the three of us could walk together more of the time. We could walk side by side the whole way.”
“We are walking together. We can walk side by side the whole way as it is,” Trevor insisted.
“Well, no we can’t,” the girl responded, “There are some points where we can walk side by side, but a lot of the path is too narrow to do that. You have been walking in front of me and Diane not next to us.”
“Well, my legs are longer and I am faster,” the man returned hotly, “If you just walked faster you would be able to keep up with me. I shouldn’t be expected to slow down.”
“You’re just upset that you tripped,” Diane said.
“No this isn’t about me tripping at all,” the girl exclaimed, “Can’t you see that the path is often too narrow for more than one person to pass?”
“I don’t think that’s true,” the man said, “I think you just can’t keep up with me sometimes.”
“I mean you are taller and faster than me,” the girl replied, “But even if I was just as tall as you and just as fast, it would still be impossible for me to walk next to you when the path narrows without running into a bush or something. The path is just too narrow for more than one person. Tell him, Diane. You two have been walking together for a while. Aren’t there points where you have to walk behind him because the path isn’t wide enough?”
“We are walking together right now,” Diane reasoned.
“Can’t argue with that,” Trevor agreed.
“Ok, yes at this very moment we are walking next to each other, but the path isn’t always like this. Sometimes the path is narrower. Can’t you see that sometimes the path is wide and sometimes it narrows? Can’t you see that when it narrows Trevor always walks in front?” the girl pleaded
“I see, so you want to be the one to walk in front,” Trevor countered mockingly, “Even though you are slower. If you walked in front it would slow both of us down. Is that what you want? Just to be ‘fair?’ Besides, I’m a man and you are a little girl. I walk in front so that I can look out for any rocks along the path.”
“I just think maybe we should take turns walking in front. Diane, wouldn’t you like to be the one to walk in front sometimes?” the girl asked
“She is happy with how things are. Aren’t you Diane?” Trevor replied
“I give you my water because you foolishly spill yours and now you are asking to walk in front of us when we have been walking together just fine. Why don’t you want to walk together anymore? Don’t you like walking with us?” Trevor asked.
“Maybe this path just isn’t big enough for all of us,” the girl sighed.
“Well it is a perfectly fine size for both of us,” said Trevor.
“Maybe you should walk alone,” said Diane, “We don’t want you tripping again trying to keep up.” She laughed.
“I guess so,” the girl replied sadly. “Here’s your water bottle back.” She thrust the bottle out toward Trevor
“You keep it,” he said. “I have another. Besides we wouldn’t want you out in the woods without water. Next time you should really be more prepared.”
“Try to not spill this one,” Diane added.
Trevor and Diane walked away up the path. The girl followed, though consciously slowing her steps to not catch up with them. Eventually they came upon a fork in the road. Trevor and Diane went to the right; the girl turned left.
After a while the girl made it to her grandmother’s house and had a nice visit. Her grandmother made pie, which was delicious. Her grandmother showed her pictures of when she was very young, which was sweet. The girl tried to explain to her grandmother about how the path needed to be widened and her experience with the travelers on the road, but her grandmother told her that it had been quite some time since she had walked the path but that from what she remembered it was just the right size. The girl told her grandmother about the man who said the path was dangerous. Her grandmother told her she should avoid talking to strange men. The girl didn’t press the issue further. She spent the night there and began the walk back home the next morning.
Around noon the girl stopped to take a break and eat some leftover pie that her grandmother packed for her. As she sat on a rock off to the side of the path, she heard a noise behind her and turned. There was the man from the day before, the one she had encountered on the road. This time she could see he had a jacket on, and carried a backpack on his back. The girl waved, trying to get the man’s attention, but the man walked on, looking at the ground.
“Hey,” the girl called, “Hello! Hey you! Guy with the jacket!”
The man gripped the strap of his backpack and looked at the girl warily. There was a brief moment of uncertainty before some degree of recognition. He released his grip on his backpack, but still looked at the girl uneasily.
“Oh, uh… hey there,” the man said to the girl.
“Hey,” the girl replied back. This conversation wasn’t going very well. “I see you have a jacket and a backpack. That’s good. You won’t be in any danger today”
“You’d be surprised how little a jacket and a backpack can protect you from dangers,” the man countered.
“Um..” the girl said confusedly, “I have some pie if you’d like some”
“That would be nice,” the man said. He put his pack next to the rock and sat down. They ate quietly for a few minutes.
“So,” said the girl brightly, “Now that we are friends, we should probably get to know each other. My name is Autumn.”
“Joe,” the man said, holding out his hand. Autumn shook it, then looked somber.
“What’s wrong?” Joe asked
“Oh.. uh.. nothing” Autumn replied. She returned to eating her pie in silence.
They sat in silence again for a while.
“This is a good pie,” Joe said to nobody in particular
“My grandma made it. She’s a very excellent baker. I wish she would teach me but I’m rather hopeless,” Autumn replied.
“Oh I’m sure you could learn to make a pie if you practiced. Sometimes things take a lot of time to learn,” Joe responded.
“I suppose that’s true,” Autumn muttered
“I will say though,” Joe mused, “I could really go for a cool glass of milk just about now.”
“Oh yes,” the girl agreed, “I only have water, though. Don’t you have a bottle?”
“No,” Joe said sadly, “Not anymore.”
“Oh um…” Autumn began, unzipping her backpack, “Does this happen to be your bottle? I uh… I found it in the road the other day.” She removed the extra bottle from her pack and held it out to him.
Joe looked at the bottle. He looked back up at the girl, who shifted uncomfortably on her rock.
“Yes that does seem to be the one I used to have,” he said
“Well it’s a… it’s a good thing I found it for you then, isn’t it,” Autumn stammered
“I did not expect to get it back,” Joe responded
“Well it seems that everything worked out then,” Autumn said cheerily.
Joe did not reply, and simply began to gather his pack and stand up.
“Oh.. um.. Are you leaving?” Autumn asked, rising quickly and packing her own things. “It seems we are walking the same way”
“That seems to be the case,” Joe said as he started to walk. Autumn stepped in alongside him.
“Why don’t we walk together to keep each other company?” Autumn suggested.
Joe was thoughtfully quiet for a moment as he looked on down the road before he replied,
“I don’t know that this path is wide enough for both of us to walk together”
“Yeah,” Autumn said, “I noticed that yesterday.”
The man looked at her but said nothing.
“I think,” Autumn continued, “I think you were right when you said that the path wasn’t wide enough. I realize that now.”
“Oh?” Joe asked
“Yes, I never quite noticed it before because I am used to walking the path alone. The path is not so troublesome when you walk alone, I’ve discovered,” the girl said
“Hmm,” Joe grunted, “The path has always been rather troublesome for me whether I walk alone or walk with others.”
“Ahh,” Autumn realized, “I see.”
They walked along in silence for a little ways. Joe was a middle aged man, but he favored his right leg and walked a little slowly. Autumn was a girl with youthful energy, but rather short legs. They walked at just about the same pace most of the time. Gradually the path began to narrow. It was becoming difficult walking side by side.
“What if we took turns walking in front of each other,” Autumn suggested. “Here, I’ll walk in front for a bit and then after a while, you will walk in front for a bit. Easy, right?”
“I think you’ll find,” Joe said, “That once you start walking in front, it might get a bit more comfortable for you to keep on walking that way.”
“Oh no, that’s not true,” Autumn insisted, “I very much think that we should both have the chance to walk in front. In fact, why don’t you walk in front first. That will be the most fair thing of all.”
Joe shrugged and walked on, taking the lead. After a while, though just how long she couldn’t say, maybe a half an hour or so, the man stopped.
“Alright, you can take a turn walking in the lead for a spell. I need to slow my pace for a while,” he said, and he stepped aside a bit into the grass to allow Autumn to pass him.
“Thank you very much,” Autumn said. “See, this is the most fair thing for everyone right now. Perhaps the path doesn’t need to be widened at all, people just need to learn how to take turns and be fair. Some people just never learned fairness. I will walk for a little while and then I’ll tell you it’s your turn. Easy peasy.”
“Mmhmm,” the man muttered in agreement.
They walked on.
The day was growing colder, and Autumn buttoned her jacket. It was fall now, Autumn… she giggled at the mention of her own name, and it was time for changes and preparations. Her mind began to wander as she noticed squirrels gathering nuts, the wind lift and tousle the leaves that had piled on the ground beneath the trees.
It is exquisitely lovely in the woods, she thought to herself.
On she walked.
It was getting late in the afternoon when Autumn saw the crossroads. This was the point at which she needed to turn toward home. She wasn’t sure which way Joe was going, but now seemed like a good time to say goodbye. She felt very sorry for Joe. As she had been walking, she had come to realize that those people from yesterday, Trevor and Diane, must have stolen the water bottle from him. Maybe they had stolen more. Maybe they had hurt him. They seemed like nice people at first, but as she had come to realize, they could be very cruel and were very inconsiderate of others. They had no manners at all. Perhaps Joe wanted to report those people to the police, Autumn realized. She would ask him before they went their separate ways. She turned and looked behind her, but the path was empty. There were no fresh footprints in sight. It was then it occurred to her it had been quite a while since she had turned around. It had been quite a while since she’d thought about where Joe was. It had been quite a while since she had taken the lead, and she hadn’t thought to switch at all.
Uncertain of what to do, Autumn ran back the way she came calling Joe’s name. He was an older man. Not old old. Not old like her grandmother, but still older. Perhaps he had come to some injury or incident along the way. After about 15 minutes of running, she finally stumbled upon him. He was sitting on a rock off to the side of the path, drinking deeply from the water bottle, from his water bottle.
“There you are,” Autumn exclaimed, “I’m so sorry! I was daydreaming, as I often do, and I completely lost track of you.”
“Mmm,” Joe muttered
“You must think me very rude, but I must assure you that I am not rude at all. I am not like those people. Like Trevor and Diane. Did you know their names were Trevor and Diane? Those were the people I got your water bottle from. They must have taken it right? Did they hurt you? I was thinking that maybe we could talk to the police about it. Surely taking people’s water bottles on the path is illegal,” Autumn blurted out quickly.
“So you didn’t just chance upon it on the road then, hmm?” Joe asked
“Well no,” Autumn replied sheepishly. “No I was walking and I tripped and spilled my water and then this couple, that’s Trevor and Diane, they gave me this ‘extra’ water bottle that they ‘just happened to have’ and it had your name on it and then I thought that was their name but they said that’s how the bottle came so I thought maybe it was a brand or something. And then we walked for a ways together, but Trevor was always walking ahead of us, I think because he thinks that men should walk in front or because his legs are longer or whatever and they were very rude. I don’t want you to think that I am like them.”
“You walked in front for quite a ways though, didn’t you,” Joe said
“Well, yes…” Autumn stammered. “I mean I suppose I did walk in front for quite a ways, but I wasn’t doing it because I thought I was supposed to walk in front. I don’t think anybody should walk in front. I just.. Well I was walking and I sort of started daydreaming and thinking about other things and forgot that I was walking in front. I sort of forgot I was walking with anybody at all. Maybe that happened to you too.”
“Well,” Joe replied, “When you are walking and you see a person’s head in front of you, it is hard not to notice that you are walking behind someone.”
“I see,” Autumn said thoughtfully. “Well you should have said something! If you’d told me that you wanted a turn walking in front! You didn’t say anything at all!”
“You said you would tell me when it was my turn. You never did. I was waiting for you to say something to me,” Joe stated plainly. There was no emotion, no hurt in his voice. He spoke clearly and to the point.
“Oh,” Autumn muttered. “I didn’t do that did I? I’m sorry.”
“I told you that walking in front would be a hard habit to break,” Joe said.
“You did and I didn’t believe you. I will try better, I promise,” Autumn replied earnestly.
“Mmhmm,” Joe grunted.
“Maybe we can walk the path again together another day,” Autumn said brightly. “Then I can get more practice not walking in front. Maybe if we do it a few times, I’ll really get it and we won’t have this problem again.”
“I don’t really have the time to teach you,” Joe sighed. “I think it might be better if we walk the path on our own.” He began to stand up and gather his things.
“Oh,” Autumn said sadly. “I see. I suppose you were right after all that the path needs to be widened.”
Joe sighed, pulling the backpack on his back and setting off down the road.
“Well,” Autumn continued, walking in step. “We will just have to tell the right people that the path needs to be wider. I will have to talk to the people in charge of maintaining the path, though I don’t know who that is.”
“Yeah, good luck with that,” Joe responded. “I’ve been telling people they need to widen this path for a long, long time.”
“I see,” Autumn said. “Well… well maybe they will listen to me. I mean, my great-grandfather helped build this path. Maybe if I tell the right people then they will understand.”
They walked along the path toward the crossroads in silence. Autumn realized that they were walking next to each other. This section of the path had been wide enough for them to walk side by side the whole time.
When at last they reached the crossroads, Autumn turned to Joe and spoke
“Well. I am turning this way,” she said, gesturing toward the right. This would be time to say goodbye. She had learned a lot from Joe. She had a lot to think about at home.
“Yep,” Joe replied. “So am I”
“Oh,” Autumn confusedly. “You live this way?”
“Yep,” Joe replied. “Just over the bend. My family has lived here for a long, long time”
“So has mine,” Autumn replied. “I guess I just never noticed before. I’ve never seen you on the path and I’ve been walking it my whole life.”
“Mmmhmm,” Joe agreed, or maybe disagreed, or maybe just grunted.
Autumn wasn’t quite sure what to do. She had been ready to say goodbye. She didn’t much feel like walking with Joe the whole rest of the way home.
“Well,” Autumn said. “You got your break in. I think I will stop for a while and drink some water too.”
“Sounds good,” Joe said, continuing to walk.
“Well… bye then,” Autumn called to him.
“Bye,” Joe called back. And kept walking.
Autumn drank some of her water and watched the squirrels for a spell. She looked down the path and when she could no longer see Joe’s head on the horizon she set off walking.
Maybe the path needed to be widened, she mused. Or maybe the path was fine and people needed to change. Or maybe both the path AND people needed to change. Or maybe it was just better to walk the path alone. Or maybe they needed to make a completely different path. Or maybe…
Autumn wasn’t sure. She wasn’t quite so certain about anything. She would not be quite so certain again for some time. The question of the path was a complicated one that would not be answered any time soon.
So just to get this out of the way, I know that this is a really super ham-fisted metaphor and I apologize. But in talking to friends and family over the past week, this story came to me and I felt the urge to write it down.