When I woke up it took me a second of staring at the sticks and mud of the ceiling to remember where I was.
Pale light from one small window illuminated the dimness. The fire had died and on the other side of it, Leif had disappeared, his bedding folded neatly. I found my watch and was amazed to see it was after nine; we’d slept for over twelve hours – the longest rest I’d had since… when? Maybe since I was a teenager.
It was particularly miraculous since Chloe normally thrashes around so much in her sleep. When I sat up, Dante awoke, too, and Chloe right after him. Their clothes and hair smelled of smoke. Some insect had left a little itching bite on my leg. But inside my head there was a new stillness, as if an alarm that had been ringing for weeks had suddenly stopped.
We dressed. Not only did the forest canopy soften the light, the moss and ferns muted sounds – no horns, no brakes, no voices, no footsteps. There was only the muffled splash of the creek that runs along the edge of Selu. Then I noticed birds warbling to each other out of sight.
As I stood in the doorway a small one, round and sharp-beaked, swooped the ground in front of me, jerked its ruby head to get a better look, then fluttered up into the branches again.
“I’m hungry,” Chloe said.
I was, too. “Let’s see what we can find.”
The trail was easy enough to follow in the daylight, twisting out into a meadow, then plunging back among the trees to emerge near the center of the community.
Rain must have fallen the night before; the earth was dark with moisture and stuck to our shoes. Drops glistened on leaf tips, in spiders’ webs and in the bark of fallen logs. The air smelled of leaves.
A man in rubber boots, his waist-length ponytail twined with beads, greeted us from among the cabbages of the garden as we passed. Inside, at the tables where we’d eaten dinner, a dozen kids were already busy with books and pencils.
Leif, dressed in the same poncho, sat with four of the younger ones, listening to them read. He nodded to us, when we came in, but didn’t get up. In the kitchen, I found Corinne with two other women, scrubbing pots and pans.
She smiled cheerfully, asked how we had slept and if we were hungry, then laid out a breakfast of honeydew melon, eggs and homemade bread with some of Christine’s butter. Afterwards, she showed us the solar-heated shower hidden behind the common house. It felt good to scrub away the travel grime. As we were coming out again, wet-haired, we ran into Leif leading most of the kids with baskets and bowls in their hands. “We’re going to gather acorns,” he said. “Want to come?”
My plan had been to leave first thing. But standing there, flush in the autumn sunlight, I felt too drowsy to rush off at that moment. It was, what, Tuesday? My plane reservation was open-ended and I’d arranged to have my appointments covered through the end of the week.
What was the difference if we left in the afternoon instead of the morning? We followed Leif and his charges to a grove of white oak, their green foliage spangled with purple. The ground underneath was thick with acorns knocked down by a recent windstorm. I’d never seen so many in one place before, and under Leif’s tutelage I got engrossed in the business of sorting out the hard fresh nuts from the soft rotten ones, of turning the smooth hulls to search for entry holes of insects, of judging ripeness by the shade of brown.
Dante and Chloe worked busily for fifteen minutes, then she began digging in the dirt with a rock. He picked up a stick and began fencing with a small tree. But the other kids – ranging from four to sixteen in age – kept busy until they’d filled all the baskets and bowls.
Back at the common house, Leif showed us all how to pound the acorns for flour, using nuts that had been drying since previous harvests. By the time we’d ground and leached and boiled the mush it was almost noon. So we mixed some of the paste with wild persimmon and hickory nut, and sweetened it with honey. I was surprised to see Chloe — who makes it a point not to eat anything unfamiliar – gobbling it by the bowl.
Afterward, we found the sun pouring into a clearing by the common house, and I dozed in the grass. Once, my phone chirped, and my whole body tensed. But when I picked it up I found I had no service, so I turned it off.
The hospital, Charlie, my whole life felt very distant; for long stretches of the day I had forgotten I was in crisis. It was almost dinnertime by then, and the drive back to Greensboro seemed too long to undertake at night, so I decided to stay until morning.
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