Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a forest. Now unlike most forests in these stories, this particular forest didn’t seem scary at all. Sunlight drifted down through soft rippling branches, and there didn’t appear to be a single tooth or claw around that would ever do anyone – much less a little girl – harm.
If a branch wasn’t holding up an ornate log-cabin, fruit or moss swung softly from it as one dewy morning led to another, and life in the forest hummed happily along its meandering pathways and orderly branches. Everyone seemed to know exactly what their role was, and life in this particular forest looked to be about as idyllic as could possibly be imagined – children played and went to school, parents went off to work and then dined and chatted together afterwards, there was a place for everyone and everyone was in their place.
Because this particular forest had rules.
Since, as everyone knows, there can’t be predictable happiness without order and rules. So the little girl quickly learned what her role was supposed to be, as well as the role of everything and everyone else around her, and so that first time one of the wisps floated softly by her desk – her hand shot quickly into the air to ask what it was.
Put your hand down, she was told. You’re talking nonsense little girl – there’s nothing there. Class, are we all in agreement? Raise your hands if you saw a “wisp.”
The little girl knew she’d have one ally. As the wisp floated gently by, her eyes had locked in wonder with another little girl across the aisle, and their ears wiggled in delight beneath pinned-back hair as their smiles followed the wisp along. But when the little girl looked over to confirm her friend was also raising her hand…
That night the little girl learned that orderliness comes with its expectations, and should those not be met – the kind of order that followed was not the soft, dappled, loamy kind. But luckily, this little girl was very, very smart. And she quickly learned to echo what she was told to believe, and to accept whatever solutions were offered. So before long, she learned to ignore the wisps that would float in and out of her life, and did her best to fit into the perfect, neat, orderly life of this particular forest.
And as she grew up, the little girl learned that although the trees of the forest didn’t contain a single tooth or claw, that was only because the teeth and claws were carried by the people around her. Since order inevitably means hierarchy, those higher up in the branches of the forest were able to live lives unobserved by the regular folks below. So as the little girl’s life brought her higher up into the trees – where, it turns out, wisps have a harder time reaching – she did the best she could to fit into the forest and find a sense of belonging. Many times that meant doing things that made her want to close her eyes, but that seemed like the only way she’d be able to belong.
She just told herself that if she never told anyone about them, that they never would’ve happened at all. And as the branches got higher encounters with teeth and claws became more common, until after one particular mauling – that same wisp from the classroom hovered sadly around, trying to will the little girl to see it again – the little girl decided enough was enough and grabbed the most jagged tooth she could find to use it to escape.
It didn’t quite work.
But, at least, it spread the path for her way out of the forest soon after that. By then the girl appeared to most outsiders like just another person from the forest, but to the outsiders who had known the wisps too, they could tell that the little girl had once known the wisps… but would never want to speak of them again.
Because in those orderly forests, that’s how it goes. The wisps are not welcome because they intrude on the order. And that cannot be tolerated. So although the little girl had no way to know it at the time, it wasn’t just the one other little girl whose eyes she locked with who saw the wisp – every single other child’s in the classroom had too.
So there she was, feeling as alone as she ever had making her way out of that forest, carrying marks that she was determined never ever so much as speak of much less show to anyone. And yet despite all that the little girl was determined to change the system that had caused her so much pain. Which is exactly what she did as she begin to tell the world about the cost of order, and all the while that little wisp watched in wonder – having wandered its way cautiously out of the forest when the little girl left, as usual, never far behind her.
And yet even though she was speaking out against it and although the little girl had left the forest, the forest hadn’t really left her – as every time she got a chance to undermine it, she was still worried about its order and hierarchy and making sure she’d still be able to maybe really belong there one day… and of course, the forest’s teeth and claws – what happened when you broke someone’s particular rules – would always be in the back of her mind as well.
This story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. But it might.
Because although she hasn’t seen them yet, every time the little girl – who isn’t so little now – gets a chance to tell the story of the forest and the damage its rules cause, little kids in every place imaginable glance nervously at the particular form wisps take where they are and decide together, without really knowing how together they are… that no matter what anyone says, you’re real to me.
And just like they have wisps of their own, the people who live there have crafted their own ways of hiding their particular sets of teeth and claws from those wisps and those around them. But the little girl is very, very smart – and is well on the way of figuring out how to spot the teeth and claws around her, no matter where they come from.
So although every time the little girl gets a chance to raise her hand, now that she’s out where everyone can see, not only does her wisp perk up, but every single other wisp in the world glances over hoping that this is the time she finally decides to tell the world about them and about the experiences that led her to pretend they weren’t there in the first place.
But… if it’s not this time, perhaps the next one.
The wisps know that so long as no one knows about the marks she has, and so long as no one knows the story about how she learned to look away from both her own scars and the wisps meant to prevent them, that no one will think that anything’s wrong with her.
So although the little girl would like nothing more than to change the way things happen in the forest, the wisps know that for that to happen she’ll have close her eyes, go back to that classroom, and convince everyone else in the room to raise their hands too. And after that she’ll need to tell about the ways she learned of teeth and claws, because you can’t understand how important wisps are without understanding what happens when they’re not around.
Because the only way any particular set of teeth and claws is allowed to be hidden is when we pretend the wisps aren’t there. After all, that’s what they’re for: casting light on the teeth and claws carried by the people and rules all around us – that tear apart the hope parents have of providing a better life for their children, that shred the futility of dreams clung to by the desperate, that stick deep into the guts of little girls and make them think that the pain they’ve suffered is because they’ve done something wrong, or weren’t good enough, or somehow brought the pain they’re suffering on themselves.
Little girls are never to blame.
And yet despite their wisps’ best efforts, they inevitably seek to blame themselves. So all this particular little girl’s wisp can do is wait and see what she’ll do next, and find out how this story ends… along with the rest of us.