No matter what country or what city I was in during my Watson Fellowship, when I was around children, there was always one or two who just wanted a lap to curl up in and a warm body to cling to without fear of reproach. When children approached me or climbed into my lap during that year, there was usually a coin-flip chance we couldn’t communicate in a shared language. But a gentle voice is a gentle voice, and a comforting touch can tell a child much more than words could ever express. What is written below is a story that I told on five continents – I’ve told it to children I’ve held who understood English and who didn’t, children from wealthy families and children without families, children who were scared, bored, asleep, antsy, and sick. It’s iteration is always different, but the heart of the story remains the same.
I told this particular version of the story once at the Kampiringisa prison in Uganda. One of the Karamojong children climbed onto my lap while I was sitting in one of the empty cement rooms, filled with rank odors and devoid of light. She was probably 10 years old, but she was severely emaciated and could’ve passed for 6 or 7. She didn’t speak any English. She laced her thin arms around my neck and curled her head, pressed just below my collarbone, so every vibration of sound in my body would pass through her ear. Like all the children, she only had one piece of clothing – hers was a ratty tye-dyed shirt that hung just to her knees. Her bare legs and feet hung delicately over my lap, and she never said a word. I told her the story I’m about to write below, and when I stopped talking, she picked her head up to reveal a large stain of tears down my chest. I held her close until we left the prison that day; it was my last day at the prison, and I never saw her again.
There was a little girl named Anna who one day found a map lying in the grass. It was a map of the whole world, and to Anna it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She kept a secret, and only brought it out when no one else was around. She would study the map and design the routes of her adventures all across the world. She imagined following the Nile through Africa, or exploring the jungles of South America. She would press her finger against the place she most wanted to be that day, and then imagine that was where she really was. Anna read a lot of books, so she knew what the places were like, at least she could pretend she did. She felt the brisk wind blowing over Ireland’s hills, and the sting of sand that attacked her face in the Sahara. She would start to sweat when she imagined the stifling heat of the rainforest, and she could taste the salt of the oceans where she swam between coral reefs.
Anna loved imagining these adventures because there was a lot of danger where she lived. There was a very mean and unpredictable bear that lived close to Anna, and many times this bear had hurt her. When the bear would get angry, it would roar and roar with the most terrible howls, looking to attack whoever was near. When this happened, Anna would grab her map and run to a hiding spot. Once there, she would press her finger to the map and transport herself to somewhere far away. The bear’s roaring would fade into the distance, and Anna would be free to explore new places and see new things. It was always scary to leave her hiding place, but whenever she did, she had her map by her side.
She couldn’t always avoid the bear, though. Sometimes it found her where she was hiding, and sometimes she just couldn’t get to one of her hiding spots in time. Anna was very afraid of bear, but she started to get angry at it too. When she was on her imaginary travels all over the world, she was never afraid, even when she met scary new creatures or found herself in dangerous situations. She was mischievous and bold when she had her finger pressed to the map. She realized that she couldn’t keep living in fear of the bear. So the next time she went on an adventure in a faraway land, she bottled up all her bravery for her next encounter with the bear.
Soon enough, the bear was again in a rage. Instead of running to a place to hide, Anna confronted the bear. But even with all her practice through her adventures with the map, and even with her full bottle of bravery, she was terrified. The bear showed her no mercy, and to her horror, he grabbed her map and tore holes through it with his vicious claws. She cried out, and collapsed, grabbing the shredded remains of her most precious possession. She turned away from the bear and ran as fast as she could. She ran and ran, through forests and fields, until she no longer recognized anything. The sun was setting and sky was growing dark when she collapsed next to a tree, nettles caught in her dirty clothes. She pulled her legs up to her chest, still clutching the fragments of the map, and buried her face into her knees. Hot tears streamed down her cheeks and she shivered from the cold and fear. She didn’t know where she was, and didn’t want to find her way back.
Anna felt a gentle hand on her shoulder and jumped. Standing next to her was a beautiful girl, framed by the rays of the sinking sun. The girl had wreaths of golden curls cascading from her head, and knelt down beside Anna and wiped the tears from her face. She put her arm around Anna’s shoulders and whispered, “I don’t know what is wrong, my dear, but I am here to help you.” The blonde-haired girl reached for Anna’s hands and pulled her up to her feet, picking up some of the scraps of the map that had fallen around her. She took Anna’s hand and led her to a house that was hidden away in the trees. The girl led Anna to room with two beds, one for each of them. As Anna retreated into the corner, exhausted and still afraid, the girl with the curls brought her a glass of water. Her golden curls bouncing, she sat sat down on the bed and placed her hand on Anna’s, which was still trembling. She held it tightly, and sung quietly to Anna, until the hand’s shivering ceased, and the sounds of slow breathing meant that she had fallen asleep.
The next morning, and for many mornings after that, Anna woke up next to the girl with the golden curls. They went about their days, Anna looking for material to remake her map, and her blonde companion wandering the forests and nearby towns, singing joyously for everyone to hear. After many months of hard work, Anna had completed her new map. It was much bigger than the one before, and included details of her many travels over the years. But when Anna placed her finger to the map, she found it hard to be swept away into her old adventures. She wasn’t running from the bear anymore, though she sometimes thought she could hear it roaring far off in the distance. She didn’t need to escape from her new home, where she lived in safety, simply and happily, with the beautiful girl who had found her. But Anna yearned for the feeling of adventure that she used to have when imagining her journeys, curled up somewhere dark and hidden, finger pushing down on her destination.
So one day Anna decided she had to start her travels again. She rolled up her new map, packed her things, and headed out the door. She ran to her best friend, golden curls shining in the sun, and held her close for what felt like a very long time, though in the following years, that embrace would feel painfully short. Anna grabbed her things, and tears in her eyes, said goodbye to the home and family she had come to love so dearly. She turned away, looking down the path she was about to follow. Cast along the dirt road were shadows of the trees, outlining the brilliant rays of sun shining through the leaves. She took a deep breath, and pulled out her map. She placed her finger on the place where she stood, took a step forward, and quietly recited a line from one of her favorite books, a line that had echoed in her mind for many years:
‘It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.’