Little Red Gumboots

18 July 2017


Under the cold, wet sky of a miserable Sunday, little Sam Baker buried her gumboots in the woods. It was a private ceremony. No witnesses. Just her, the soil and the corpse of something she used to love. At the tender age of five, she would have declared the forest behind her house to be the greatest place in the world. Red boots clunking, she would trek there on cloudy afternoons and squish mud patties with her fists. The trees would stand over her like great green pillars and she would gaze up at their spindly boughs, planning to climb them all and claim each one as her own. She used to disappear there for hours at a time – leave home when the air was crisp, and return when it warmed, smelling of sweet honey. It would make her parents nervous.

She had only ever shown this place to one person. Unintentionally, of course. She had never planned on sharing. It was the evening of one of her parents’ gatherings, a night where the music was tasteful and the adults wore their remaining youth like party hats; it was a rare time where they didn’t seem worried, where they relaxed and fell into themselves, or at least the old selves they used to be. Sam noticed this. She watched them babble in that excited, child-like way, and it made her tired; sick of waiting for grown-ups to finish their conversations and do something, of being told Just a minute, sweetie, of looking up with wide eyes only to be met with a flick of the wrist. She saw him then – smiling across the room and gesturing with a curled finger. She grinned back, thinking how nice it was to have someone to talk to. Later on, when she ventured into the dark, Sam found that this stranger had followed her into the woods. But she didn’t mind. He laughed with her, he listened to her. They played games. He said to keep them a secret. The night air was thick, and the moonlight was pale. For the first time, the woods became cold. Gazing up at the sky, Sam wondered if the man on the moon was watching her, if he approved of what she had done. Afterwards, she didn’t know whether she felt better or worse.

By the turn of her sixth birthday, Sam had abandoned her old adventures. The forest was no longer of interest. It had changed and so had she.
There were nights when she would wake up sticky. Full of terrible dreams and feelings she didn’t understand. In the blackness, she remembered the wolves. How they grazed their teeth along her neck and nuzzled their snouts into her chest. How her heart throbbed so hard she thought her blood would bruise. When she woke up, the sheets would be sodden. They smelt sharp and animal. In the morning, her mother would change them. She would sigh, It’s okay, Sam. It’s okay, and wrap the yellow sheets in a ball, chucking them in a basket. They landed with a thump.

When school came around, Sam was silent. She sat in class picking at crayons, scraping their oily flesh beneath her nails. The teachers worried about her; she knew they talked to her parents, told them things that they didn’t need to know. She’s struggling to adjust. It’s a big change. Is everything alright at home? They had betrayed her.
But worst of all were the boys. The ones with grubby fingernails who pulled on her pigtails and laughed when she cried. The ones who snuck into the girls’ toilets, crawling on all fours to see where her pee came from. Gross fluorescent light caught the fine hairs on her skin and her thick-leathered school shoes slipped on the grime smeared floor. Everything was dead and painful, and Sam was no exception. She was often tormented by a boy with skinny ankles who would chase her and push her, lifting up her skirt to sneak a peek at her pink Barbie undies. Her thighs would tense up like quivering cement, and her knees would buckle. Yet, as the scrawny-limbed boy and his friends sneered, something would change. She would relax. They would look, they would giggle, they would leave. And she would feel fine. The smacking of a skipping rope echoed in the background and she would watch the other girls jump, their skirts ballooning.

Leaning against her parents’ bedroom door, Sam listened to them talk. They were angry. Not with Sam, not even with each other; she wasn’t quite sure what. A hard walnut lodged in the back of her throat. Her mother spoke quickly and profusely. She barely even speaks to us. She can’t hold a conversation outside the house. It’s like she’s not even there anymore, and her father wouldn’t know how to respond.
I just want to know what happened to our baby, her mother would say, voice breaking. And then there would be silence, and Sam knew they were hugging.
But their anguish couldn’t last for long, and her parents picked themselves up in a way that Sam struggled to understand. The conversation shifted, their voices lifted. It was like nothing had happened. Her mother’s concern drifted towards the evening: how she had to get ready for tonight, how the food still isn’t prepared, how she will be judged by the ladies in her division. And as the night drew on, everything was fine.
Until she saw him. Standing next to her parents. He was different now. Smoother-tongued than he had been in the woods.

But as his meaty fingers wrapped around the neck of the beer bottle, Sam felt her stomach curdle. She watched as he would make a joke, and her parents would laugh. They would chuckle deep into the night, gradually losing focus and falling into the hazy rhythm that adults do – sip and laugh, sip and laugh. Then, rousing themselves from their trance, they remembered. Sam, come here, they would call.  Say ‘Hello’ to the guests. And everyone would gush and aww, and she would look into their great big eyes and feel afraid. She was so small. Fumbling with her skirt, even with her eyes on the ground she knew he was looking. She could feel him; his big shadow pressing down on her. It took all she had not to scream.

Outside once again, the tender thuds of her feet stamped the earth and the muck caked her skin. Sam took her red gumboots for one last trek. Bulbous, grey clouds smothered the sky – they hung heavily and looked as though they were about to weep. But Sam’s cheeks were already wet. Taking off her shoes, she dug and dug and dug until she was elbow deep in the dirt. She lay her boots gently in the hole. Then, spilling all the dirt back into the gash, she pressed it down, resting her palm over the earth for a small second. It was done.
Naked toes splayed against the soil, little Sam Baker turned on her heels. She walked home, barefoot and limping. Behind, she left her old companion to rest in their grave; a site that remained unmarked, but there nonetheless.

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