I still remember the first time we met. Her family came from a distant country in search of a better life, but they didn't speak English and couldn't find jobs in the city. It was our elderly neighbor who took them in, allowing them to stay for free as long as they looked after the land that had long fallen to disarray in the man's old age. When I heard a girl had moved in, I became curious and made my way over. Sure enough, there she was, sitting with her legs stuck between the planks of the patio fence and munching on sunflower seeds. But the first thing that struck me was her hair, black and shining like the feathers of a migrating crow. I was a shy boy, and though I made it that far, I couldn't bring myself to talk to her. She had long noticed me coming, her wide brown eyes feeling me out for some presence of malice that I didn't possess. When she realized, she spit a sunflower seed at my feet.
I jumped. She laughed.
We spent most of our days together after that as children. She was fearless in our adventures, climbing the tallest trees and touching the strangest bugs. She drew delight from showing them to me and making me scream, but I thought it was worth it to see her laugh. Her smile was blue skies on a summer day, and her laugh was like the sunlight that helped my younger self to bloom. Even my mother noticed the change in me that was taking place, slowly, under her bright influence. Every day was a new adventure with her around.
But the day that will always stick with me was the day the storm came. The skies were dark and the air felt sticky on my skin. My father told me we needed to get into the cellar, but I knew I needed to check on her. Her family had probably never seen a storm like this, and I knew the elderly man wouldn't be able to board up the windows of the house himself. And so I snuck out against my father's orders and made my way to her front porch, calling out desperately to see where she had gone. I only had to see the look of alarm on her mother's face to know she wasn't there. I called out that I would find her and bring her back, and despite the fact that she couldn't understand my words, her mother seemed to understand my intent. With a nod of approval, I dashed off into the field.
By then the winds had come, and were picking up in speed. I knew there'd be no hope for us if the storm was to hit, but even still, I knew I needed to find her. When I finally did, it was in the last place I could have checked: the old flower patch on the edge of the forest. The sunflowers she loved so much were being tossed around by the wind, their stalks still so thin and weak. Anyone might expect a girl her age to be terrified in this situation, but she was a wall of stone. At first she seemed confused to see me there, but then immediately called for my aid, as though it had been my true intent from the start to help save the flowers. She tethered the stalks together with the lesser plants around them, weaving them like a braid and binding them with a bit of string. I'd later learn it was from the ribbons she always kept in her hair.
I took to work recreating the same method as her, pulling together the bits of grass and wheat until the stalks were nearly twice as thick. The wind was still picking up, and I knew we'd have to act quickly if we still wanted to run to safety. I never knew if she was aware just how much danger we were in the day, but when the last stalk with finally secure, she turned to me and let out a loud cheer, grabbing me by both of my hands and dancing about the field. I responded by jerking her down to the ground, hoping we'd be safe in the slight run-off ditch just beside the trees. She didn't question my actions, nor did she seem alarmed by them. No matter how tense I must have looked, she only saw the sunflowers swaying in the wind with a smile in her eyes.
After an hour that felt like forever, the storm had stopped. It never arrived on our land, and the scolding I received from my father as punishment almost made me wish it had. But it was worth it to see her smile. Looking back, I wonder if that was when I really started to love her.
We were never as close as we were that day. It wasn't long after that the elderly man died, leaving his land in the hands of his son, who had no desire for other people to be living on it out of charity. To pacify him, her parents swore they'd work hard and produce enough money to offset the costs of them keeping the land. And sure enough, soon they were out there every day with her, working from before dawn and until dusk to make the land palatable again. The summer sun was harsh, and in one season her father seemed to age 10 years. But the results of their hard work paid off. With the vegetables they grew, they didn't need to go shopping anymore, and they could even afford to sell the extras to make funds for rent. Upon presenting their first check to the son, I hear he smugly slipped it into his pocket without a word, informally consenting for them to remain on the land.
But things were still hard. During the cold winter, I begged my father to provide them with firewood, knowing to whom the task would likely fall in their household. Seeing the seriousness of my resolve, he consented, but only on the condition that I chop it myself, and tell no one who gave it to them. Perhaps it was due to my own naivety that I didn't understand why he wouldn't want his good deed to go acknowledged, but even so, I agreed. I woke up late at night to chop the wood, delivering it anonymously at dusk on the side of their house as though it had always been there. Seeing the smoke from their chimney filled me with relief.
I'll never forget the last time we met. Rumors had been going around that the son who owned the property her family lived on had neglected in paying his debts to the bank, and now it was being foreclosed. With no official documents allowing them to stay, they would be forced to move. I was almost a young man by then, but she still seemed like a girl, lost for the first time in what to do. I didn't learn why until the day she left: her parents, knowing they'd only hold her back, left her with their life savings and returned to their home country. She invited me in to look at the remnants of the house they once shared together, now in pieces as everything was packed away in boxes that would likely never see the light of day again.
Silently, we walked together out to the field. I knew where we were headed without even asking. That small flower patch was bigger now; the sunflowers finally able to stand on their own even in the harshest winds. When she saw them, it was as though she'd been renewed with that same childhood vigor that encouraged her to face the storm. She smiled, and suddenly reached out to remove the glasses from my face, putting them up on the face of the tallest sunflower. Before we knew it, we were both laughing and dancing like we were children again, stopping only when the last beams of sunlight had finally hidden themselves beyond the hills. She returned my glasses to me, and with only a few words, we parted ways.
I remember standing there as she walked away wishing for a storm. I would have liked to pull her down in the ditch again, and tell her she didn't have to go. But I did none of these things, standing as tall as the sunflowers as she walked away from the life she once knew. All this time I had believed that I was the one who failed to support her, but really she was the one who'd been supporting me all this time, weaving together the stalks that held me up to give me a leg to stand on. When she left, the storm finally hit, and I was surprised to find that I could finally stand on my own.
Things are different now. No one grows sunflowers on the meadow anymore, and the forest that once stood there is now a field of suburban development. The city she fled to quickly came to our little village, creating a foreign landscape that few were able to stomach long enough to stick around. Although my father's business skills supported us there, I knew I couldn't stand to stay and see the fields her family worked so hard to maintain be destroyed for the newest mini mart. And so I too fled for the city.
I'm older now. For a time I thought I had forgotten about the sunflowers and the kindhearted folks who lived across the meadow, but then I found myself suddenly thinking of her. A glimpse of a stranger on the street whose face I could recall but whose name escaped me. Our eyes never met, but I knew her the moment I saw her. She was chatting with another woman in such an animated manner, her smile lighting up the street corner. By her clothes and appearance, I knew she must have found success somewhere. She didn't need me or the sunflowers anymore.
And yet I still have my regrets. This story has no clean resolution. Life doesn't stop just because the story ends. It just means another one is soon to begin.
My part in her story is over, but my story is just beginning.