Park ranger Wally is struggling to cope with humanity’s effect on the forest he takes care of. But then one night, he encounters a little girl that will alter him and the park forever… [Rating: All Ages]
Cressida the Witch
As the sun went down, a quiet ascended over Greenwood Park, except for the array of animal sounds. Singing birds, chirping crickets and muffling wild boars made the park feel more alive to Wally than it did during the day. At night, the park belonged to its inhabitants and to them alone. During the day, humans took over, making their presence all too known.
With his picker Wally grabbed a water bottle and with a slow motion he heaved it into the trash bag he was carrying in his other hand. Slowly and meticulously, Wally made his way across the most popular footpath of the park, as he did every other night, picking up plastic containers, paper towels and even the odd umbrella and occasional backpack and picnic blanket.
Coming across another heap of sandwich bags and soft drink bottles piled up against a tree trunk, Wally sighed before kneeling and bundling them together. He was rather looking forward to his pea soup after he finished for the day. Very much so.
Every Thursday Wally would eat pea soup at his favourite restaurant, which was located at the edge of the woods. Janine would prepare his meal while Gregory would serve him at the same table he had dined at every Thursday since becoming a ranger at Greenwood Park three years ago.
Wally turned onto the bend that led back towards the park’s entrance and tried to take in as much of the late afternoon bird song as he could, but his mind was too occupied with the bag in his hand. It seemed to weigh heavier and heavier every day. He wondered if it truly was. He should buy a pair of scales, weigh the waste each day and catalogue each different path’s litter and trash cans to measure if the amount of it was indeed increasing or whether the litter just weighed heavier on his mind. Yes, that was an excellent plan, he assured himself. Hopefully it would prove to be all in his mind.
Wally opened the different bins behind the building that served as an entry point into the park and also contained his office. Carefully, he selected and dispensed of the waste he had gathered in the correct bin. He looked at the leggings in his hand and for a moment played with the thought of binning it too. Then he reconsidered and put it with the picnic blanket, the teddy bear and the smart phone with the cracked screen in a different box next to this feet. Not that anyone ever came back for their belongings, not even for the stuffed animals.
After Wally had put away his tools and stowed away the lost property box, he went back out and locked the door behind him for the evening. An owl hooted in the distance. Wally looked up at the canopy above his head and noticed through the trees that it was a starless night. He sighed before heading down the poorly lit path leading to the parking next to the restaurant. One street light ahead guided him towards the Greenwood Inn where he would eat his pea soup.
Wally put his hands in his trouser pockets as he strolled over the dirt path, twigs, leaves and gravel crunching beneath his feet. The owl hooted once more. It made Wally smile. He couldn’t remember having smiled at all that day. Too many loud people, too much litter and too few animals.
As a breeze flew past him, Wally walked up to the entrance of the inn. He pushed against the door, but it refused to open. Annoyed with his inability to open a simple door, he shook his head. He looked up and noticed his own frown in the door’s reflection. He really craved that Thursday pea soup. He had been looking forward to it all day. After all these years Janine knew exactly how he liked it and he needed that familiarity tonight more than ever.
Before he managed to try the door again, there was something besides his own tired reflection that caught his eye.
Were those lights coming from behind him inside the forest?
Then he heard a little thud. It was almost inaudible and Wally wondered whether he had imagined it or if perhaps his shoe had moved a little and had crushed a pebble. Slowly, Wally turned around. Not wanting to look like an idiot to anyone who might look on. They should not think he was afraid of every little sound he heard. The thought of a park ranger being scared of a little noise and light in the dark made him cringe.
He was almost relieved to see he hadn’t been wrong. There was indeed a small light hovering in the air further up in the woods. The light moved quickly from left to right across from where Wally was standing. It was accompanied by the same little thud he had heard a few seconds earlier.
Ha! Not stupid! he thought to himself.
But what was it?
As soon as he took a step closer to look at the light, it disappeared. But before he knew it, to his left, another light appeared. It moved at great speed among the trees circling the restaurant.
Wally looked behind him towards the diner and then back towards the spark beyond, where it spun about the trees. He took a couple of soundless steps towards the edge of the wood and peeked around a wide oak. Another light appeared ahead of him. Wally bent forward past the tree and to see better he pressed his nose into a bush. At first, he squinted to get used to the increasing darkness and the view amidst the thorny branches, but then his eyes shot open widely. What he saw made his eyebrows raise high on his face too.
A little girl, no more than 8 years old he reckoned, was holding a long stick in her hand. The end of the stick was glowing. And then, all of a sudden, accompanied by a thud, it wasn’t.
The light had let go of the stick and travelled a little to where Wally was bent over, his nose starting to hurt a little from the prickly bush. He was pressed against it quite hard now, but too mesmerised by what he saw to care about his nose.
The light hung in front of his face for a second, then vanished with a plop. Wally tried to see if there was a rope of some kind hanging between where the little girl was standing further ahead of him. He couldn’t see any.
There was another flash of light which turned into a ribbon of light. But then it disappeared.
At this point, Wally’s jaw started to hurt a little from being open so widely. It did very much seem like the little girl was making the light with the stick and the stick made it travel among the trees in the park on its own accord.
But magic, Wally knew full well, didn’t exist. So he took a step back from the bush, back behind the oak and closed his eyes, pressing them closed very tightly. He also rubbed his nose and jaw, as he had now become aware of how much they hurt.
When he opened his own eyes and peeked around the tree again, two big strange ones were staring at him from the other side of the bush.
‘Aaaaah!’ Wally screamed. He stumbled backwards and nearly fell down on his behind. It took Wally all his might to keep his balance, but he remained upright. Which he was glad about. One humiliation per day was enough, especially when happening in the same minute, he strongly felt.
The little girl behind the bush giggled as Wally dusted off his trousers.
As Wally looked up at her, he couldn’t help but smile back, even though he was highly aware he probably looked sheepish.
The little girl waved him over, so he took a step forward and pressed his nose against the bush again. As it still hurt a bit, he didn’t press as hard as he had before.
‘Hello,’ the little girl said in a muffled voice.
‘Hello,’ said Wally, using his hand to wave. ‘What are you doing here after dark?’
‘Practising,’ said the girl.
‘I saw you,’ Wally replied. ‘I saw a light.’
The girl took a step back from the bush and nodded. She looked at Wally with a very proud smile on her face. She held up her stick.
‘That looks like a wand,’ he said, smiling sheepishly.
To his astonishment, she said: ‘It is!’
‘It’s… a wand?’ Wally wanted to confirm.
The girl nodded, the proud smile on her face even wider now. ‘Look.’
A frown replaced the smile on the girl’s face. She seemed quite suddenly to be in deep concentration as the tip of her tongue appeared from the corner of her mouth. She stared intently at the stick in her hand.
Pardon, Wally graciously corrected himself in his mind: wand.
It didn’t take long for Wally’s mouth to open again as a bright yellow light appeared at the tip of the girl’s wand.
This can’t be real, Wally thought to himself. He realised he hadn’t blinked in quite a while, but as he did so and opened his eyes again, they stared straight into the yellow light hovering in front of him at his side of the bush. Behind it, the girl was jumping up and down in pure glee.
Wally couldn’t help but smile broadly. He then put his hands together and applauded. ‘Marvellous,’ he said. ‘Just marvellous. How did you do it?’
The girl giggled. ‘I don’t know. I just wished it.’
‘You just wished it,’ Wally said, shaking his head, his hands still clasped together. ‘How marvellous.’
‘Did you come to see me practise?’ said the girl.
‘Eh,’ replied Wally. ‘No, I did not. You see, I always eat my dinner at the restaurant over there after my work day is over on Thursday’s.’
The girl giggled again. ‘That restaurant belongs to my grandparents.’
‘It does?’ said Wally, smiling at the little girl.
‘Oh, yes,’ she answered. ‘We just moved here last week. Been eating there all week.’
‘Welcome to Greenwood, then,’ Wally said with a bigger smile.
‘Thank you,’ the girl replied.
‘What’s your name? I am Wally.’
‘Cressida,’ said the little girl. ‘But you can call me Cressie.’
‘Hello, Cressie. What a pleasure to meet you.’ Wally waved at her.
‘Shall I show you something else I can do?’ said Cressie, not waiting for a positive response, but darting away instantly.
‘Of course,’ shouted Wally, darting after her through the trees. ‘Show me.’
Cressie held her wand tightly with two hands as she halted between two birches, the tip of her tongue reappearing. Wally waited patiently for what seemed like a minute or two while Cressie’s frown became deeper. He worried she might bite through her tongue in concentration.
As soon as he thought this, it happened. It made him stumble backwards yet again, but instead of nearly falling in fear, he now cheered from the amazing consternation displayed before him.
An array of lights sprawled from Cressie’s wand with several pops. Coloured bands of light slithered this way and that, around tree trunks, branches and bushes, like fireworks on bonfire night, but somehow thicker and more beautiful. Wally wanted to stroke the lights, hold them and study them. He pressed his hands together in pure glee. Cressie smiled at Walley and seeing his amazement, she started to skip after the lights.
Wally followed Cressie as she continued to skip around the forest for a few minutes.
Suddenly, he realised he was skipping as well. Perhaps this was an even better way to spend an evening than by eating his favourite soup, he thought. ‘So your grandparents are okay with you wandering around the park alone?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, they know I like it here,’ answered Cressie. ‘And I don’t go far into the forest.’
‘I see,’ said Wally.
‘Do you work here?’ Cressie asked, making more lights dance around the trees and the two of them.
‘I do, yes. I look after the park.’
‘Is it doing well?’ Cressied asked, as several fireflies joined the colourful mid-air chorus.
Wally pondered Cressie’s question as he stared at the wonder around him. ‘I love this park,’ he finally spoke. ‘But I’m afraid it’s not doing so well.’
Cressie nodded. ‘I thought so.’ Her arms suddenly fell by her side. Several plops in the air indicated the lights vanished. ‘But it will be all right,’ she added, instantly heaving her wand in the air once more.
‘It will be?’ asked Wally, stepping next to her.
‘Yes,’ said Cressie.
‘How do you know?’ asked Wally.
‘Because I have a plan,’ answered Cressie, her gaze focused on the lights she was conjuring.
‘A plan?’ repeated Wally. ‘What kind of plan?’
‘A plan to save the park.’
‘Oh, yes,’ Cressie said. The lights above paused, mid-air. ‘Too many animals are dying, my grandparents say. Too many trees and plants too. They told me all about it. It’s all our faults, but I am going to fix our mistakes.’
‘You will?’ said Wally, in awe of this little girl’s determination.
‘Yes. I am learning magic and by learning spells, I can save the park.’
‘That is an incredible plan, Cressie,’ said Wally.
‘You think so?’
‘Oh, absolutely. The park can use every help it can get.’
‘Do many animals die here?’ Cressie suddeny asked.
‘Sometimes,’ answered Wally.
Cressie nodded. ‘I’m going to make that stop.’ She threw her arms and wand in the air higher and sent one of the lights further out into the forest. While the rest hovered closeby, this light floated away until Wally could no longer see it amidst the darkness beyond.
‘Now we wait,’ Cressie said, crossing her arms.
Not asking for what, Wally stood next to her and also crossed his arms. It didn’t take long until Wally heard a rustling of leaves and branches up ahead. For a moment Wally contemplated grabbing Cressie and making a run for it, but when the lit eyes in the dark took shape, he saw the eyes belonged to a deer. Out of the dark, antlers appeared: it was a stag. And another one. Next to Wally, a squirrel scurried from the canopy down the trunk onto the forest floor.
Cressie stepped forward as one of the stags stalked closer towards Cressie. Wally was on guard, but let the scene play out for now.
‘Hi, Tony,’ said Cressie.
Tony? thought Wally.
‘How were things today?’ Cressie asked the stag, who in turn made a series of noises that made Wally’s jaw drop.
‘Oh, I see,’ said Cressie. ‘Then what happened?’
More noises from the stag.
‘No way,’ said Cressie. ‘And then?’
Wally felt light-headed when the stag seemed to answer the little girl a third time.
‘Wow. That’s horrible.’
A short stag reply followed, as if it showed he agreed.
Wally waited, too stunned to speak anyway, until Cressie got up and patted the stag.
‘Tony says some people were cutting down trees on the other side of the park. He says you already made them leave once, he’s grateful for that by the way, but…’
‘They’re back?’ shouted Wally, so loudly, the squirrel shot back up the tree trunk, watching on from a branch up high. ‘Sorry,’ said Wally to the squirrel, who stared at him. Or seemed to, anyway, Wally thought, realising he had just apologised to a squirrel.
‘Afraid, so,’ said Cressie. ‘What can we do?’
‘I’ll have to call the police again. Can he tell me what they looked like?’ Wally asked, as if it were perfectly normal to ask a stag for a witness statement.
‘No,’ said Cressie. ‘They only recognise smells. But he says they smelled the same as before.’
‘Ah, yes, of course,’ said Wally. ‘Well, tell him I will look into it first thing in the morning.’
The stag looked at Cressie who translated it into stag, which was odd, because to Wally it sounded exactly like the language he had just been speaking in too. In fact, Cressie just repeated every word Wally had just said, exactly.
When Cressie had finished translating, another low rustle came from behind Wally. When he turned around, he saw two ducks wag towards him across the leafy forest floor. Behind them, a duckling struggled to keep up with them. Wally heard Cressie let out a gasp in horror when at the same time he noticed why the little duck was struggling: it was caught in a plastic sandwich bag. His little feet stuck through a hole in the plastic, making it difficult for him or her to move.
‘Oh no,’ Wally said, kneeling down as the duckling’s parents shouted at them. Cressie knelt down beside him.
‘It’s okay, Mrs Duck, he’s going to be okay.’
‘Shall I?’ said Wally.
Cressie nodded. ‘Mr Ranger here, Wally, will help him, okay? He won’t hurt him, I promise.’
Father Duck turned to the little one and quacked. Slowly, Wally moved forward across the forest floor and grabbed the shivering duckling. It quacked quietly. ‘Shhh, you’ll be okay,’ Wally whispered to him. ‘It’ll be okay.’ Carefully, he pulled one foot out of the plastic bag and then the other. When its feet were freed, the duckling shook his little feet and quacked louder, along with his parents.
‘You’re welcome,’ said Wally, guessing that was the right response.
Cressie clapped in her hands as the duck family retreated back into the park.
Wally put the plastic bag in his pocket as the stag behind him roared.
‘Tony wants me to thank you for your hard work for all of the animals in the park,’ Cressie said.
As he got up, Wally felt a blush appearing and was glad it was mostly dark around them. ‘Oh, thank you. That is most kind.’
The stag let out another bellow before turning around.
‘So how does this work?’ said Wally when the stag retreated back into the woods, together with his mates.
‘What?’ said Cressie.
‘That. What you do.’
‘I just listen, so he can understand me.’
‘But it’s the same language as mine.’
‘Not exactly,’ said Cressie, hopping from one leg onto the other with her wand in the air, colourful lights still playing about above their heads, mesmerising the squirrel in the tree. ‘It’s difficult to explain. For one, you’re a grown up.’
‘What does that matter?’ asked Wally.
‘Not many humans can understand animals, but when you get older you lose the ability altogether.’
‘Yes, for magic,’ the little girl said, making heart shapes out of the lights with her wand. They floated around in the air between the trees and swaying branches.
‘I see,’ said Wally, unsure he actually did. Then he got an idea. ‘Wait, so if you can communicate to me, then communicate to them, can we together help the forest and the animals with their needs?’
Even though only Cressie’s wand provided them with light, he could see her entire face light up.
‘Let’s do it!’ said Wally.
‘Will we meet here again tomorrow?’ asked Cressie, jumping up and down, the lights following her movements, as the wand in her hand moved with her.
‘Absolutely,’ said Wally, walking Cressie back to the inn. ‘Tell your grandparents that your secret is safe with me.’
‘What secret?’ said Cressie.
‘This secret. The secret to magic.’
‘Oh, but there is no secret,’ answered Cressie. ‘It’s just that you forgot and stopped believing that you’ve ever had it. If you ever believed in the first place.’
Wally pondered this as he followed Cressie inside where Gregory greeted his grandchild with a big hug and greeted Wally with a wink before showing him to his usual table in the corner.
After Wally finished his pea soup and Cressie finished her banana pancake while waiting for her mum and dad to return from work, they said their goodbyes and promised to see each other again the next day. Gregory was stroking Cressie’s hair with a proud smile on his face.
After waving goodbye through the restaurant’s window, Wally climbed inside his car and turned the corner away from the restaurant. Suddenly a figure loomed ahead. With screeching tyres, Wally came to a halt. Before him stood a stag in the middle of the road. It stared at him for a moment before sauntering towards him. When the stag reached the driver seat window, he stared at Wally before letting out a roar. Wally nervously smiled at the stag.
‘See you again tomorrow, then Mr Stag? Errr, Tony?’ he yelled through the closed window, realising the stag couldn’t understand him.
But to his own astonishment, the stag let out another roar before trotting away into the darkness of the forest, leaving Wally alone in his car. Suddenly Wally found himself laughing. Laughing so hard in a way he hadn’t laughed in a long time. As his foot hit the accelerator, the image of Cressie and her lights came into his mind’s eye. He smiled to himself. His park was going to be okay thanks to a little girl and her magic. He now firmly believed.
Note: Interested in why I wrote this story? Check out my behind the scenes blog on the background of Cressida here!