The little girl kept following us and the more I felt her big, strange eyes trying to drill into our souls, the more I couldn’t help wondering at which point exactly we had crossed that shallow, invisible line dividing our worlds…
The place isn’t far, maybe an hour’s drive, but it has little in common with the seaside madness my town becomes every summer. And even the fickle heart of the holidaymaker seeking endless entertainment, forgetfulness and temporary distraction from everyday life needs a moment or two to breathe and recover, away from overpopulated beaches, loud terraces and crowded trendy clubs. Yes, I knew such a place, somewhere we could go and spend a little while hearing ourselves and each other, a place where we could lose ourselves in a different time… I knew a very nice spot, just right for an afternoon’s getaway.
It wasn’t the first time I was visiting that historically laden, yet entirely ignored place; but I have no idea where on the bumpy, bad road lies the border between our world and that to which the little girl belongs. It might be where the decent layer of asphalt ends; or when you enter the first village… or maybe the second… or when you drive by the rusty sign introducing the stranger to her village. I know this type of village for long enough in order to be aware of all the innocence lost and lack of romanticism of the rural community. Yet there still are times when I’m taken by surprise and two strange eyes manage to pierce through my cynical shell and make me wonder and re-evaluate basic issues of my own existence.
She appeared out of nowhere as soon as we got out of the car… a child of the trees, daughter of water. No, a real girl, a child of misfortune and poverty – nothing poetic about her untold drama. She muttered something without getting too close; I think she offered to be our guide on the river banks. I knew the place, I declined her offer, because my overly realistic, cynical, cautious mind had already come up with various ways in which we could have ended up on the bottom of the river, to never be herd of again. She looked neither happy, nor sad, her sunburnt face gave away nothing.
She was spying on us and I was spying on her. She kept walking when we walked, stopping when we stopped, constantly muttering to herself or perhaps to the grass, to the flowers or to the birds; but her eyes were scrutinizing us with great curiosity whenever she thought we weren’t looking. When we walked away from the car, she walked around it a few times – my perfectly average, nothing out of the ordinary car passes for a sign of luxury in such a village, that much I know. Like any girl her age, she was eyeing our outfits, our accessories and our smartphones as we kept taking pictures. Unlike children her age that we grew accustomed to, the hills, the river and the hardships of fieldwork and rural life were her second nature, not technology and endless trips to the mall. Does a child like her even dare to dream of a normal life? Or are her dreams so little that they wouldn’t even count as aspirations on our value scale?
Seeing her eyes look away as soon as she realized I was analysing her reminded me once more that we aren’t even born equal, much less do we have equal chances to overcome our initial condition. I know people who have children her age and they make unbelievable efforts to provide them with the best education and everything they need to have a good start in life, to stand a chance… How much of a chance does this kid stand when her parents allow her – probably make her – go troll for tourists and increase the family budget? Did she even know what she was missing? The way she smiled carelessly at the birds and flowers and spoke to the waves made me think she had no idea that there was more to life than what she had experienced; she was still a child who could enjoy little things in ways we couldn’t even imagine. But the way she looked so much older whenever she was focusing on something could only make me believe that either her intuition makes her feel what lies ahead or she had already survived experiences no child her age ever should know.
Will she break the cycle? Will she be able to make it out of that world, in spite of her lack of fortune and perspectives cast upon her from the moment she was born? Or will she simply continue the century old tradition in the poor village – have children at a very young age, get married even younger, allow herself and her children to be abused by a drunken husband because nobody taught her there are other ways of life out there? Maybe she could be amongst those few incredibly lucky village children who stay in school, who have parents who manage to see the importance of education even if nobody offered them such a chance. Or perhaps her father is just one of the many men who were sitting around the tables and drinking in front of the village pub we had driven by on the way to the river… one of those men who drink the little money they have, with no remorse about what that type of behaviour does to their families.
We left the town to escape our lives for a few hours and that we did… but wild nature was not the only thing to make us think twice about our values and appreciate our own lives and opportunities. It’s the wilderness of people and the cruelty of poverty in a place that – in many respects – seems to still live in the 19th century that really makes one wonder… Easy as it may be to distinguish the dividing line between water and clouds, between land and sky, that thin, oscillating line between worlds stays well hidden most of the times, we only perceive its existence once we cross it.