It doesn’t matter whether they were chestnuts. Maybe they were blackberries, early fall-ripe, just off the vine. Maybe they were daisies with their perfect yellow centers and virgin-white petals. Maybe it was a single dying bird, half-heartedly testing out each wing before the final lights out. Whatever it was, the girl had wrapped it in the bottom half of her shirt and was holding the bundle as carefully as I used to hold Grandma’s china when I set the table on Friday nights, God forbid anything should slip and break and be gone forever. The girl was holding her package exactly like this, chestnuts or daisies or a swallow on death’s door, and was stepping gingerly through the obstacle course of the playground to where her father was, sitting on a patch of grass in the sun. He was tall and handsome and he stood up as she advanced toward him, and if I knew more French than I did I could understood what she said to him about whatever it was she was holding onto, and I would have understood his response back, would have known whether he marveled at her patience as a chestnut-gatherer or advised her to dispose quickly of the near-dead bird, or chastised her for picking the daisies.
What I really want to say is that seeing the girl with a bundle in her shirt tiptoeing through the danger zone of sliding children and soccer games and downed scooters and idle strollers made me feel like I was witnessing an act of God, but it’s hard to say this without sounding dramatic or corny or Californian. Except there was something holy about it, something of a rare purity and grace, and I felt my heart lift and open, transcended to a place of sanctity and alignment I have almost forgotten is possible.
What was it, exactly? The delicacy with which she held onto her shirt, the way she angled through the minefield of noise and near-collisions? Her innocence, the desire to cherish and save and secret away the small treasure she’d found? The glee of discovering that which had gone unseen by others? Whatever it was, the girl reminded me of what I have overlooked and tossed aside, the parts of me that have grown hard, how I am getting less inquisitive these days, less adventurous, less capable of noticing. I envied this girl her bundle of chestnuts, her clipped daisies, her irretrievably wounded bird. She had in her hands a precious thing, and she knew to keep it there, to save it as best she could, to make her way back to her father and share with him her amazement, her beautiful discovery, the treasure she alone had plucked from a ripe and generous earth.