When I was four, Daddy took me along on one of his business trips. Mama was busy at that time and couldn’t look after me. My grandparents were always willing to help out, but Daddy and they had a mutual dislike for each other and he didn’t care for leaving me alone with them for long periods of time. So I was treated to a brief adventure in a very hostile place, where Daddy was involved in negotiations of some kind. I’m sorry I can’t say where. Daddy never did tell me and he and I aren’t on speaking terms now.
Daddy placed me in the care of a pretty lady with very dark skin and black hair, named Ruelda. Several children of different ages lived there, possibly the children of military personnel. Ruelda was the teacher for a single classroom shared by all of the children, regardless of age. During the short time that we stayed there, she was more than just my teacher. She was my mother.
Ruelda was one of those people who always has time for you. I loved her very much and she treated me as if I was her own daughter. This was a very unusual experience for me. She gave me more love and attention in a couple of weeks than I remember my parents giving in my whole childhood. She did that with all the children. We were all special to her, and in the school, we were like one big happy family.
I stayed with her in one of a collection of bungalows like a small village or encampment. The bungalows were all perfectly square and perfectly boring, lined up perfectly in the centers of their small square lots. Rows of shade trees were planted down the center of dirt roads that ran in more perfect squares between the groups of bungalows. There weren’t any cars, although I remember seeing a few small trucks from time to time while I was there. For some reason, watching them leave deep tire tracks in the red clay mud when the rains were pouring, made quite an impression on me.
Weather there felt like it belonged to a tropical island, very humid most of the time and never very cold even though we were there during the winter. At least that’s the way I remember it. Outside the encampment, there were lots of trees, a jungle in my memory. I think the trees planted in the streets were native. I certainly didn’t recognize them. I loved it there, but I think that was just because I loved Ruelda. The place itself, as I said, was quite hostile.
This was a day just like any other. Ruelda had let us out for a recess to play in the streets. It was warm and sunny, and we were all playing a game we called Dogs and Rabbits, which is a little like a cross between Tag and Hide and Seek. There was an accustomed cracking of rifle fire in the distance, a little more than usual. We never paid it any mind.
A tall girl, named Jainei, was counting off with her eyes covered by her forearm, leaning against one of the trees we called the Rabbit Hole. She was the dog. I was one of the rabbits and Andrea, one of the other younger girls just a little older than me, was with me, scampering for cover under one of the bungalow porches. It was dangerous under the porches because of scorpions, but we crawled under them all the time anyway and no one ever got stung.
Jainei was a skinny girl, even darker than Ruelda, the oldest in the school. She was as kind and sweet as anyone I ever met and I remember thinking how I wanted to grow up and be just like her. She used to sit and read stories with me sometimes. She was always the first to be the dog, because she was smarter and faster than all the rest of us so it would never end up being her turn again. She always let herself get caught though, so no matter who was the dog, they would always catch a couple of rabbits. She finished her counting and called out that the hunt had begun.
The gun fire got a lot closer while Jainei searched for us. Andrea and I were hidden under a porch that belonged to one of the town officials’ bungalows. We were scolded for playing in his yard, so it seemed like a perfect place to hide. I was waiting for Jainei to turn up toward one of the trees with some bush underneath, ready to make my break for the Rabbit Hole, when suddenly the bullets ripped down the middle of the street.
Jainei and two boys she had converted to dogs already jumped for cover. We all lay in horror watching as the bullets ripped the wood from the trunk of the tree where Jainei had been counting only moments before. It seemed like a million bullets must have rushed by. I could see Ruelda across the yard on the porch of our schoolhouse, screaming at us to keep down, but I couldn’t hear a word over the bullets. Then they stopped as quickly as they started and moved off again.
Ruelda raced off the porch, calling our names out one at a time. We all came out from hiding. No one was hurt. Andrea was crying, so I held her hand. We all gathered in the middle of the street and stared at the Rabbit Hole. It looked like a colony of eager beavers had just gnawed their way through the middle of it. After Ruelda was satisfied we were all present and accounted for, she turned and looked at the tree herself. “You’d think they could afford one more bullet to finish the job,” she said, shaking her head.
Jainei walked over to the one of the lower hanging branches. She reached up and gave it a tug. The tree began to bend and then once its weight was off center, our Rabbit Hole came crashing down to the ground in the middle of the street. “I finished the job,” she said. Andrea was still in tears. “Now we can never get back to the Rabbit Hole,” she cried. I held her hand tighter. “Don’t worry, Andy,” I said. The street was still lined with the other trees, all untouched. “We can find a new Rabbit Hole.”
A few days later, Daddy’s business was finished and we were on a plane going back home. I never saw Ruelda again. I never saw Jainei again. I never played Dogs and Rabbits again. We moved shortly after we got back, and it wasn’t long before I was busy with kindergarten, making new friends. The mysterious encampment of bungalows in some tropical place where bullets cut down trees became a dream.
Life has a funny way of connecting its dots sometimes. Yesterday, I was sitting alone at a table in the mall nearby my apartment, writing down this story. There’s a coffee shop there and I’m a total coffee addict now. They have an outside cafe where I like to go to write. The bustle of the mall is easy to ignore. It helps me concentrate and nothing helps me write like a hot Caramel Macchiato!
I was sipping the last of the whipped cream, which I swear I didn’t order, from the top of my coffee, when a girl passing the coffee shop caught my attention. She was a little heavyset, but small enough that she was petite anyway. She had sandy, brown hair with a slight, natural curl and a round face with cute, chubby cheeks. Unusual, pale blue eyes averted themselves from my gaze. Suddenly, I realized I knew that face.
“Did you ever find it?” I asked as she walked by. She turned to look at me. “I’m sorry?” she said. Obviously she didn’t recognize me. “Never mind,” I said. “Would you mind reading something for me? Do you have a minute?” The blue eyes stared suspiciously at me now for a few seconds and then she looked around at the other tables. “None of these people are buying?” she asked. I laughed. “Please, I promise it’s just a story.” I turned the laptop her way.
She adjusted the screen and began reading. After a few paragraphs, her jaw dropped and she looked at me in shock. “Oh my God! Dogs and Rabbits!” She stared at me in disbelief searching her memory for my face. She looked at my story and then back up at me. “Annie?” I smiled and got up and hugged her. “It’s a small world isn’t it?” I said. She pulled away and her face was still in awe. “Just a minute,” she said and sat down to finish reading what I had written. “I forgot you called me Andy,” she said after a few minutes, pushing the laptop back to me. “I just can’t believe it’s really you!”
Andrea sat and talked for a while. Meeting her again turned out to be an even more amazing coincidence than I realized. She doesn’t even live in America. Her husband is a career military man stationed in Germany. They had only flown over to visit his sister. Andrea had stepped out to do some window shopping while they were busy catching up. Her sister-in-law’s family had just bought a home up in New York and would be moving there soon. It was the only time in her entire life Andrea would ever be at my mall and there I was writing about us.
We exchanged information, gave each other another hug, and parted ways. I doubt we’ll ever contact each other again. After all, we only knew each other for a couple of weeks when we were practically babies. I smiled to myself as she started off. I suddenly realized I wasn’t done with my story. “Hey Andy,” I called out after her. She stopped and looked back. “Watch out for dogs.” She laughed and went on her way. I turned back to my writing and stopped and shook my head. I’d never thought to ask her the name of that place.
© 2010 Anne Schilde
I apologize for the timing of this title. There was no intended similarity.