The girl by the lake

A little girl danced along the path, clutching a brown paper bag. With a glance back at her mother, she tiptoed down to the water’s edge.

I admire the way the French look impeccably well put together from such a young age. La petite was more miniature adult than child. It didn’t stop at the elegant pairing of brogues and coat, even the girl’s deportment exuded grace and she mustn’t have been older than five. Where I grew up, I wouldn’t deign to use the word deportment in describing the behaviour of the adults, let alone of the children.

On the opposite bank of the lake I reclined in the grass, surrounded by geese. And no doubt their droppings. We’d just entered May but the weather gods still merely taunted us with glimpses of the summer to come, and so I mirrored the resting birds, tucking my legs up, hugging my arms around my body and elongating my torso beneath the afternoon sun. Its subtle warmth radiated onto the skin of my face as my eyes fell shut.

Troubles of the mind become all-consuming when the distraction of nature’s beauty is torn away.

How is it fair, I pondered, that I’m the one who made this whole damn trip happen and yet he’s having all the fun without me? Structurally it was a question but semantics would certainly have understood it as a rhetoric of self-pity. Of course he would be more interested in playing minigolf with one of the guys than in spending time with me.

It’s typically the tension in the muscles of my forehead and of my jaw that alerts me to my rising stress levels, rather than the thoughts themselves. I pried my eyes open to escape the downwards spiral.

Overhead, a flock of seagulls soared and smaller birds flitted between them. How I envied them. The ease with which they found the balance of wind beneath their wings and hung effortlessly in the skies, suspended above the world.

Propping myself up on my elbows, I looked back at the girl in the pink coat to see her reach a hand into the bag. It was comically large next to her figure and swallowed her entire arm as she stretched to its corner. From the bag she pulled a chunk of bread. Probably from the family’s pantry; after three days fresh bread’s not good for much besides French toast and feeding the ducks.

She tore the old bread into pieces. Her clunky overhand throwing action reminded me that she was indeed a child, still not entirely aware of her own limbs. She’d clasp some bread in a fist, hold a bent arm up to her ear and turn her shoulders so she could use the full momentum of her body to twist and propel each tiny morsel a full two metres from the shore.

After three throws she paused and cocked her head to one side, once again looking back to her mother, and then back at the little bits of food bobbing about in the lake. I couldn’t see her face but I imagined from her overall demeanour that it was scrunched into a grumpy frown.

“Maman!” she called to her mother. “Mais maman!” The last syllable was drawn out and her high pitch rose and fell like the birds above us. Even whinging in French sounds adorable. It must be a difficult task not to cave to a child’s every demand in this language.

Parental intervention, however, could do nothing to solve this little girl’s problem. In the lake, three ducks paddled as though they hadn’t a single care in the world. Far from scrambling to scoop up the free meal, the birds dawdled along, swimming straight through the waterborne platter she’d so thoughtfully delivered them.

The little girl followed the ducks, overtaking them at the bend so she could throw directly into their path. And still, nothing. How nonsensical it must seem, to someone so young, to see a generous offer ignored. How disheartening.

When the ripples from the poor girl’s first failed dinner party settled, the lake’s surface became a mirror for the sky, and I sat up, returning my gaze to the seagulls. I could almost feel my body in flight as I watched them, captivated.

It wasn’t the largest of the birds that caught my eye, and there was no reason for this particular creature to draw my attention besides the fact that its winding flight path seemed to suit my mood. My breath latched onto its gentle rise and fall and, muscle by muscle, the hypnotic rhythm pervaded my being.

As the bird soared higher I filled my lungs, broadening through my ribs and pulling my shoulders back and down towards the ground. My chin lifted, nose following the seagull until the bird dropped into the gravity of its descent, and the air was forced from my chest as all the tension in my muscles was released at once.

We danced like this for an hour without a single moment of total stillness, though the movement was barely visible to the outside world. My whole body expanded and collapsed in on itself with every inhale and exhale, with every rise and fall of the bird.

And although my mind was engrossed in the delightful simplicity of the moment, one thought soared with me. It’s a funny thing, when you think you’re offering someone exactly what they need, yet they don’t want to take it from you.