Clara pulled open the shades and smiled out at the blankets of freshly fallen snow. She looked as if she were planning to twirl and start singing a song about the joys of winter, but instead, she suddenly froze solid and frowned down at the lawn.
“They ruined it!” she gasped.
“Ruined what?” I asked, pulling on a pair of socks on the edge of the bed.
She pointed out the window, “The neighbor kids! They walked through our yard! It was perfect and then they ruined it. It has silly paths all through it now!” She was quite upset. You would think that someone had crumpled up her favorite art project and thrown it in the trash.
I wiggled my toes inside my fresh socks and walked across to the window to peak out. It was exactly as she said, and to be honest, it did look rather like someone had scribbled in grey crayon on a clean white sheet of paper. “Oh Clara,” I rest a hand on her shoulder, “it will be alright.”
The lines started somewhere in the direction of the neighbor’s house and meandered toward the end of our driveway where a pack of the little hoodlums gets on the bus every morning. I knew there were layers to Clara’s emotions over this, since most of those hoodlums were her close friends throughout the summer, but now in the school months, they all left every morning while she stayed home for school. Seeing shadows of their lives without her on the lawn outside our window was a painful thought.
So, I sat her down and gave her a gentle lecture. “You have to forgive them,” I told her. “You have to let it go. If you hang onto this little anger inside of you, it will only get bigger and start infecting other parts of your life. You will turn anger over what they have done, which is quite innocent, into anger over who they are. You need to let this go now so you can move on from it and be happy.” I felt like I had an opportunity to redirect a river while it was maybe still just a trickling brook.
And it appeared to work. Her shoulders sagged and she took a deep breath and smiled up at me reluctantly. “I just was really looking forward to seeing the yard covered in perfect smooth white snow.”
“I know. And it’s okay to be disappointed.”
I pat her on the shoulders and left the room. I had only been up for about 15 minutes and already I was accomplishing great things as a Dad. The day was bright. The world was clean and fresh. I took in a great lung full of air, stretched my arms and stepped into the living room. That’s when I looked out the front window into the yard near our driveway.
“WHAAAAAAT!” I yelled. “THOSE LITTLE TWIRPS! PUNY SELF-CENTERED EGOTISTICAL MISCREANTS!”
There was a tumble of feet behind me and I had to restrain my emotions to a quivering in my chest and a pair of balled up fists.
“What? What is it?”
I held one eye tightly closed in my effort to meter my voice. “They tore up. My tree!”
The rush of feet ran to the window and saw what I had just seen. The path through the yard, leading from the neighbor’s house, led straight up to the young Mountain Ash, the only tree in our entire front yard, which only yesterday had been covered in beautiful bright red clusters of berries lightly dusted with magical snowflakes. This morning it was entirely stripped of everything lower than about six feet and was left standing dejected and naked on our lawn.
“Oh wow,” my children each cooed. “Where did all the berries go?”
I laughed maniacally, “Where did all the berries go? Where do you think all the berries went. They took them, the little-”
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I saw myself sitting patiently on the edge of my bed looking down on me, “Now now, James,” I said softly, “you need to control your emotions. Just let it go now or it will just draw you into deeper issues.”
“Ha! No!” I shook a finger up at my own face, “Let go? How about instead I hide in the ditch until they show up tomorrow to get on the bus? Then I’ll burst out of a snowbank screaming about how I don’t want them to ever go near my tree again! I’ll pelt them with snowballs and hang them upside down by their ankles!”
I blinked at myself. “You know you shouldn’t even consider that. It’s just a tree after all. You are a grown man.”
“I’ll show THEM Grown Man!”
This was all happening in my head, and apparently, it was showing on my face because all three of my children were watching my eyebrows as if they were a terrifying pair of killer jumping in and out of the water. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay.” I opened my eyes. “Okay… I can deal with this. It’s not a big deal.” I looked past my children out at the upside down broom leaning sideways outside the window which used to be a tree. “This is… okay. I can let it go.”
Clara smiled and took my hand.
But I still couldn’t let it go. I spent the rest of the day with it smoldering in the back of my mind. I caught myself staring out the window and thinking of ways that I could determine who was behind this act of terror and how I could convince them to never do anything like it again.
The moment I got home, I went straight to work on my forensic analysis. I waded through the 10-inch snow in my slip-on work shoes and examined the damage to the tree more closely. The stripped branches. The footprints surrounding it. I touched the snow and brought it to my lips and tasted it not really even knowing why. I turned my head and followed the path of steps with my eyes and I started to write down notes in my mind.
The first thing that caught my attention was that there was only a single set of footprints leading up to the tree. This was good. It meant the problem could be solved by bringing the hammer down on just a single nail. But a thought suddenly caught in my mind.
“Where are the berries?”
I glanced around in the snow. I thought for sure they had been pulled off to throw at someone else while they were waiting on the bus together, but there were no berries anywhere in the vicinity.
And there was only one path leading up to the tree and one path leading away. Which meant that someone did not pull berries off, leave, and then come back for more. All of the berries were taken at once and then held in their hands or stuffed in their pockets until they were finished. I narrowed my eyes and looked back up the path leading to the neighbor’s house. Perhaps the little twirp would still have them in the pocket of their coat even. Caught red-handed, so to speak. I was hot on his trail now.
I started to gingerly retrace the steps. The footprints in the deep snow were somewhat smaller than my own feet, so I was making quite a mess of myself trying to hopscotch from hole to hole, but I couldn’t give up now. I felt so close. I skipped through the yard past a lilac bush near our dining room window. The little jerk had passed it too closely and knocked off all of the pretty snow. I shook my head sadly and continued on. I bounced along my fence line in the direction of my neighbor’s back porch.
“Where would this pathway end?” I wondered.
But I could already feel the hair on the back of my neck starting to snap to attention. The facts just didn’t add up. The path led to the corner of our yard where the snow had been knocked off a section of our chainlink fence opposite our sleeping raspberry plants. As if someone had leaned over the fence to touch them for some reason. I stopped short, ankle deep in snow, and sighed a heavy defeated sigh.
I finally saw that the path did not lead to the neighbor’s house at all. It ducked around the corner of the fence in that direction, and then immediately looped back around and scribbled its way across our yard in a different direction and then back up towards our front porch.
I looked down. The snow was shallower here, next to the fence. And I could finally make out the boot prints of the twirp that had done all of this damage to both my yard and my ego. I touched it softly, recognizing it instantly. I slowly retraced my steps back to the house and stepped inside.
“Hey, Clara! Lydia! Gideon!” The three of them came running to greet me at the door. “Hey guys, get your boots. I want to take you outside and talk to you for a little bit. I want you to help solve a mystery. Oh and grab your coats.”
They obediently disappeared into the closet and laundry room while I went upstairs to find Andrea. I wanted to let her know that I would need her help talking to the mother of the person that tore up our tree.
“Oh no,” she said, “Who? I can go talk to them.”
“Good. I think they live over by the creek. They are probably sleeping right now, pockets filled with MY berries, but I trust you’ll be able to find them. By my estimation, you are looking for a young moose that stands about four and a half foot tall. His mom should be somewhere nearby. Tell her, next time I’m going to shake her son upside down by the ankles or something…”