July 16th 1995. It was my fifth birthday. My eye lashes fluttered beneath Mother's soft hands. They smelt like tangy, orange soap. She directed me out of the house and into the front garden. The air was hot, just like it had been for the last four weeks, although today we were lucky as the breeze had picked up just enough to comb cool through my hair.
I could hear the water in the pool beat against the pool's edge. The chlorine was strong, almost drowning out the sweet scent of Mother's new flowers that had finally reached total blossom. The bird's duet sounded from the stone bird bath and I could feel Bear, our German Shepard, trot beside me to my feet.
"Okay, baby, happy birthday." Mother released her hands from my eyes. They took a moment to adjust to the morning sunlight. I gasped.
"Is that mine?" I asked.
"All yours, my darling." My mother announced.
My eyes returned to the bike that shone under the sunlight. It had a baby pink frame, printed with daisies, a small basket on the handle bars that had tassels on each end, and of course a daisy shaped bell. It was the coolest thing that my five year old self had ever seen.
"Where did you find it?" I yelped as I ran toward the bike as fast as my five year old legs would take me.
"Your Aunt Helen and I bought it and decorated it ourselves especially for you."
"Thank you! I love it! I love it!"
The whole morning then consisted of Mother teaching me how to ride it up and down the street. Sally, from next door, took photos for us and Aunt Helen provided the service back and forth into the house for various plasters and bandages.
Everybody was surprised at how quickly I had picked it up. They said that in a month, I could even have the stabilizers taken off, and as promised, one month later, Aunt Helen and Mother did just that. I was elated to feel such an independency and freedom that one morning I asked mother if I could go and ride it out at the woods. Mother gladly approved and I headed out with Bear trailing behind me.
There had never been an issue with danger in our town, or the whole north of the country. There were never missing children on milk cartons or stories of rape in newspapers. We lived in peace. We were safe. At the age of five I didn't even question it. I knew no different. For years, children in these parts only knew of their mothers, aunties, grans and sisters. There were no men. There were no boys, fathers, brothers, uncles or granddads. Men and women did not exist together. I didn't know what a man was; nobody under the age of sixteen did . That's why mother was fine with allowing me to go to the woods that morning.
My legs burned as they pushed the pedals further up the hill, along the gritty path that snaked through the mass of lanky trees sieving the beams of sunlight that beat onto my shoulders. The air rushed passed me, grooming back my locks of polished garnet hair. Around me the grass and daisies danced with the wind, lifting and spinning piles of early autumn leaves off the ground into the crisp morning air. Bear raced along side me, his hair and ears brushed back with his tongue flopping out the side of his mouth. A harmony of birds tuned from elevated homes hidden high in the treetops. Colors of beryl green, citron yellow, coral pink and sapphire blue blurred my vision. I inhaled the scent of morning due and pine, savoring every moment of this beautiful freedom. The morning was blissful.
I didn't plan on stopping so suddenly until Bear came to a halt, lifting his nose and then darting off into the trees out of sight. I looked back to call him but lost my balance. My tire twisted and locked in an almost 180 degrees angle to what it should've been. I flew over the top of my handlebars, hitting the ground with a hard thunk.
After a moment to settle the shock of my collision, I managed to lift myself off the ground, brushing the dirt off my knees. They stung. I held back my sobs, realizing that this was neither the time nor the place to feel sorry for myself as after all, it was only a little graze. My concern was for Bear. My eyes scanned the area surrounding me. I couldn't see him. I examined the trees, trying to recognize which direction he ran off into. I couldn't. The hit had dazed me and I couldn't remember which way he went. I called him... again...and again...and again. For what seemed like a long time he didn't come running to my calls, but eventually I heard him bark.
I lifted my bike off the ground and pushed it towards the source, inter winding myself around trees and bushes and rocks. I called him again, each time hearing his bark get louder.
Off the path was dark. The woods seemed more ominous the deeper I advanced through it. I could still hear the birds, but they were distant. I could still feel the breeze, but it was cold. I could still see the trees, but it was eery. I glanced back to the path. I could no longer see it. I knew that if I decided to turn back I would find the path easily, but I also knew that I needed to find Bear more than I needed to find my way out.
I continued into fathomless areas, aware of the goose bumps rising on my arms and my heart beginning to accelerate. At last I could see an area of light; a clearing. I called Bear and to my relief his bark echoed from inside. I quickened my pace and reached the clearing, only to find that it wasn't just a clearing.
What I saw was beautiful. There was a wide, commodious river that probably should have been a lake but seemed far less deep. The sun bounced of the gentle billows that reflected the sky above it; lucid and serene. Surrounding the river were natural beds of wild, appealing plants and flowers; some of which I did not recognize. The chatter of water mixed elegantly with the singing crickets, choiring birds and whispers of the leaves in the wind. I sighed at the picture, recalling the phrase "garden of Eden" as a mental comparison.
I was interrupted. Bear barked. I glanced over to see him perched confidently next to a small figure; a cowering figure behind a rather large rucksack. I observed it intently, trying to recognize it. It did not look like anyone I knew. It rose slowly from behind the rucksack.