The world is making less and less sense to me lately. I guess this is supposed to happen in college, but nonetheless, it’s disorienting. Old fundamental truths appear definitely not fundamental and perhaps not even true.
But when ideas become cloudy, stories remain sharp, grounding my understanding and even my ethics. So today, I want to tell you one of my favorites.
During my senior year of high school, I traveled to Israel to hike through the West Bank. Our first stop was a visit with some Bedouins, the nomadic, Arabic-speaking peoples who set up camps in the middle of the Judean Desert.
Their camp primarily consisted of two tents atop a large, round desert hill taller than most of the others. We greeted them, a large group of varying ages wearing an odd assortment of clothes—some obviously made by them, most appearing to be donated or bartered for. No one spoke English. One man knew a few English words, and our tour guide was fluent in English and Arabic, but that was all.
We passed the time by playing with the children. One little girl, maybe 5 years old, took a liking to me, likely because of my fair hair—an odd sight in this part of the world.
She took my hand and pulled, very clearly commanding me to follow her away from the tent. With her leading, the two of us walked, skipped, ran, jumped through the desert. She talked for a while. Then, we traveled in companionable silence, as she communicated to me by pulling on my clothes or holding my hand or hitting me. After a while, she made it clear to me that she wished to be picked up.
I obliged, liking the feeling of the little girl on my hip. We traveled for a long while in silence. I was just getting ready to let her walk herself—she wasn’t light and I wasn’t strong—before I looked down and noticed.
One of her black slip-on shoes was missing.
I could not take that little girl back to her parents—who had nothing and lived in the middle of a rocky desert—without a shoe and try to explain what had happened to that one man who spoke broken English. I could not do that. Meanwhile, the desert was covered with rocks, making it impossible for my friend to walk—I would have to carry her. The rocks cast small shadows, precisely the size of a little girl’s shoe. We had been walking for an hour, the majority of that time with me carrying her. The shoe could be anywhere.
We looked. I walked with her on my hip and bent to check the shadows, retracing our steps and then retracing them again. I thought about going back to camp and enlisting the help of friends, but I didn’t want anyone to notice and have to explain myself in a foreign language. I imagined adults gathering, speaking more quickly and loudly, multiple inquiring eyes trained on me. So we continued to look, the little girl on my hip.
And when we didn’t find it, we just kept looking. My hip and back and whole being ached with every step, with every bend and stoop to see the desert floor more clearly. My clothes stuck to me with sweat. My face felt tight and hot, and I knew it was burned. My stomach churned uncomfortably with panic and dread.
My friend became impatient, yelling in Arabic and pointing me in contradictory directions.
My arms ached. My feet hurt. My back burned. We climbed.
We walked, we searched, we talked but did not communicate. In desperation, I asked many questions I knew she could not answer.
I don’t know how long we walked, but the sun let me know it was at least several hours. I would not give up, even with the pain that accompanied every step.
But eventually the shoe shadows grew longer, and the sun crept closer and closer to the horizon. Finally, I stopped, stood in place for a long while, and tried not to cry. I stood in silence, my quiet, now-morose companion on my hip. After I had composed myself, I set off slowly back in the direction of the camp. In my head, I rehearsed saying clearly: “I’ll mail you shoes—several pairs.” But I knew there was no reasonable hope of any package reaching them, and I hated the thought of my little girl shoeless for weeks. I imagined bleeding soles, tears running down her face.
Suddenly, in the next valley, she pulled on my sleeve with urgency and spoke quickly. She pointed.
I ran with what little speed I could muster to a rock. Behind that rock, in one of the cursed shadows, nestled a perfectly innocent-looking little girl’s shoe.
I set her down for the first time in hours and grabbed the shoe. I couldn’t help it—my eyes were wet. “Oh!” I said joyously, my chest heaving. I couldn’t ever remember being so happy. “Oh you did it! Oh you found it! Oh you dear, perfect girl—”
She smiled hugely at me, laughing a little. Then she reached for my hands. I thought she was asking for her shoe, but she instead moved for my empty palm. She grasped my hand with both of hers and brought it to her chest, leaving it there.
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Monday.