I'd never seen her before. She was playing by herself down by the lake, watching the ducks. I watched them too from where I sat. It was a glorious afternoon with a clear blue sky and a slight breeze. I was quite comfortable on the grass and the tightness in the middle of my back eased as I leaned back against the tree.
She was laughing to herself now. She seemed quite fascinated with those ducks. What child wouldn't be, I supposed, as I kept on watching. New discoveries to be made, new sensations, new sounds and smells. It was a wonderful age to be. I wondered how old she was. She certainly couldn't be more than four or five. Where were her parents? Or her mother? Or even a babysitter?
There was one family nearby but they were oblivious to the child, absorbed in their game of catch with their two young boys.
The little girl turned around, caught me looking at her and beamed at me. Odd, I thought, but who could resist so I smiled back. She waved. I waved back.
More curious than anything else, I got up and walked towards her. I asked her name and she answered. I asked how old she was and she answered. A very obliging little girl, not at all afraid to talk to strangers. Was that a good thing, I wondered. Then I asked where her mummy and daddy were. She just smiled at me. She then turned around and pointed to the other end of the park.
"Your mummy and daddy are over there?" I asked, pointing over to the other side as well, as I wanted to make sure that was what she meant.
She nodded her head, her dark hair catching the afternoon sun, creating red and gold highlights that were not there before. "Only Mummy," she said.
So we talked for a while, the little girl and I. Shd told me where she went to school and who her favourite teacher was. Actually, she had two favourite teachers, one who taught her class, and the other who sometimes assisted her teacher. Her favourite colour was blue and she seemed delighted when I told her that blue was my favourite colour as well.
It was quite easy to converse with her, almost like she wasn't a child at all. And yet she was a child, a sweet young girl who was playing all by herself by the lake, fascinated with the ducks, and not at all shy with strangers. She certainly wasn't shy with me. As we talked, I enjoyed hearing her laughter. She was easily amused by the littlest things. And I wondered if I was that way when I was her age. Possibly.
She loved ice-cream, she said, and watching cartoons on tv. And she liked taking walks with her mummy and daddy. School was fun as she had many friends there and there was always lots of things to do as well as lots of toys to play with. Oh yes, and she loved to play with her dolls.
There really wasn't much to talk about especially with one so young. Sometimes she would say something out of the blue that made me think. Or remember. Or just smile to myself. I looked at her face and thought I could see the adult that she would one day become. She had a long way to go and I wondered what life would throw her way. I actually wondered about it, sitting there with the little girl, while we watched the ducks together. There was nothing unusual about her, nothing that came across as exceptional or special. She was a child like any other child. She seemed ordinary enough and liked the ordinary, everyday things that a child would like or enjoy. But there was something else about her.
The time flew, and before I knew it, it was late in the evening. I couldn't hear any shouts nor laughter from the family nearby. People were starting to go home. And then I remembered her mother who was probably waiting for her. The child was very cooperative and seemed ready to leave when I told her we had to find her Mummy. And again I wondered why her own mother had left her alone all this time with a complete stranger.
Instinctively, I held out my hand and her tiny hand reached out to hold mine. We walked to the other side of the park and I found myself envisioning what her mother looked like. Dark hair, perhaps, a resonably nice person. But still there was that nagging question: why did she leave her daughter alone so much?
I saw a woman in the distance. She was standing and looking at us as we walked towards her. The woman started walking in our direction and I slowed my steps as her features came into view. I looked down at the little girl. She was smiling at me. All this time, she was smiling at me. I stopped walking. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the woman had stopped as well.
"My Mummy thought that you would like to see me," said the child. And then she wasn't so young anymore. I looked at the sweet innocence before me but, for a brief moment, I saw the compassionate young woman that she would one day become. Or was that how I hoped she would be?
"She knew you would come to play with me," said the child. "She knew that I would be safe with you."
At that moment, my heart broke. And I knew that it would never be mended for a very long time.
"How did you know that I would be here?" I asked the little girl. All along I thought that it was a chance meeting. But it wasn't. It was supposed to happen.
"Mummy knew you'd be here," the child answered.
"Because Mummy used to come here, didn't she?" I asked.
The child nodded. "I have to go now," she said. "I don't want to but I have to." With her tiny hand, she gingerly touched my face, and smiled.
And she wasn't a child anymore. She still looked like a little girl of four or five but she seemed ageless. She walked away from me and joined her mother. And I thought how lucky her mother was. "You did a good job," I said softly, knowing the woman couldn't hear me.
Thank you, said a voice in my head. And I knew it wasn't mine. And yet I wasn't scared.
The ache was strong. Surely she knew that. Surely she knew how difficult it would be afterwards. For a moment, I felt a little jealous of her. It felt odd to be jealous like that, and yet, I knew that I was.
The child's name was Sarah. When we were by the lake, she told me that her parents sometimes called her by both her first and middle names when they were angry with her. Her middle name was Grace.
Sarah Grace. The names my husband and I had chosen years ago if we should have a daughter. It was then that I knew, down by the lake. I didn't understand it but I knew. And then I understood why it had to happen. I had often wondered what it would be like, and what she would look like. I was dreaming, wasn't I? Of course I was. There was no other explanation for it. I had wanted it so badly that I caused it to happen.
"My darling girl," I whispered. And again I ached inside.
I looked up from the book I was reading and saw her by the lake. I was starting to fall asleep and no, it was not a good thing, not when I had a little one to watch over. Another little girl had joined her and both of them were playing together. And I was reminded of a time long ago when I used to play with my cousin. And what did we play? All sorts of games that our imagination could think of. We had no need of things, not always. The "things" would come later. When we were young and innocent, all we needed were one another and the world around us.
The other girl's mother called out to her. It was time for them to leave.
"Bye, Sarah," the little girl called out to her new friend and waved. Her mother waved as well and Sarah and I waved at them. Another day would soon be over.
My hand held my child's as we started to walk out of the park. I turned my head for a moment. I shouldn't have but I did. A dark-haired woman was standing beneath some trees, looking at us. I could make out her features in the evening sun and she looked oddly familiar.
And then I realised that I did fall asleep after all. I had nodded off long enough to dream about a woman sitting under a tree - just like I was - and she saw my daughter down by the lake and went over to talk to her.
And the woman looked just like me. I could see them the whole time so I knew that my daughter was safe. But it was only a dream. Dreams weren't real. And I knew that I would wake up. And I did wake up.
As I was about to turn away, I thought I heard her say, "You did a good job." But how could I have heard her? Surely she was standing too far away. And she hadn't shouted. The words were soft and clear.
And I didn't know why but I felt compelled to answer. "Thank you," I said, mostly to myself. But she heard me. I could tell from the look on her face that she heard me. I didn't understand what was happening and I found myself whispering, "It's okay," as my heart went out to her. "It's really okay."
She was a stranger to me. Or was she? She and I looked at one another for the last time. I went back to my life as usual with Sarah Grace. The other woman went back to her life. She must have for we never saw each other again.