Becca watched her older brother swing one of his long legs over the seat of the bicycle and tighten the strap on his helmet.
"Aw, come on, Becca. You should come with us. It's SUCH a beautiful day".
Becca shook her head firmly, blonde curls bouncing as she did so. The last time she'd been mountain-biking with her brother Scotty, she'd fallen off at a steep section of the hill. A group of boys at the bottom had laughed and laughed, and said awful things about how girls couldn't ride.
It's true, she thought. Girls can't ride. I don't have Scotty's long legs or his strong arms. I'll just fall off again.
Becca gave Ruff, their golden retriever, a pat on the head and a scratch behind the ears. She pointed a wet nose at Becca and gave a little bark, seemingly agreeing with Becca's brother.
"Ruff keeps up, you know," he said softly. "And she's a girl. She wouldn't let a group of silly boys stop her from having heaps of fun." He gave his little sister an affectionate smile. "The only thing Ruff won't do is swim in the waterhole at the end of the track – but I'm working on that!"
Becca laughed and smiled at her brother ruefully. She wished she could go, but something in her heart felt heavy. The little light inside of her that had once burned so brightly with optimism and confidence had flickered out with each snickering comment that had been cast her way so jauntily.
She shouldn't be on this track – it's way too hard for a girl!
Look at her dumb girl-bike, and her stupid pink helmet!
No wonder she fell off – she's a girl and girls can't ride!
That day, Becca had picked herself up from the ground in tears. Sure, she had skinned her knees but that wasn't where it stung. A tiny vestige of self-doubt had taken root in her, and she had fed it from that day on so it now wrapped around her heart like a big thorny vine.
"That's ok," she smiled at her brother. "I'm just going to sit out the back and read my new book."
"Ok then," Scotty gave her a mysterious smile and a look that Becca couldn't quite read. "Just make sure you start on the very first page."
"Why wouldn't I - " she began, but Scotty was off, Ruff scampering beside him, and before she could ponder his odd comment any further, they were down the track and gone.
Ten minutes later, after a glass of cool, delicious lemonade, Becca sat outside in the tepee she and her Dad had erected when Ruff was a puppy. It had become a little playhouse for the two of them, with some of Ruff's bits and pieces and lots of her books. She opened her new book and was surprised to see a sheet of paper taped to the inside cover.
READ THIS FIRST! blazed the heading, followed by a smiley-face emoji. ☺
Had Scotty put this in the front of her book? Ah, she thought. That's why he'd spent so long at his computer this morning, working on something in secret.
Reading the first couple of lines, she realised it was a riddle.
Light as leaf but strong as stone,
Web of life, I am a ____________
Becca read the riddle five times, trying to make sense of it. She couldn't imagine something that was both light and super-strong. And web of life? She gathered it was some interconnected thing like a web, but couldn't think of anything to do with a web of life except creepy-crawly spiders. Nervously, she looked around the tepee to make sure there was no random spidery thing crawling toward her.
Just when she was about to close the book up in exasperation, she spied a bone that Ruff had been digging up that morning. It lay, all slobbery and grimy, in the corner of the tepee, making her wrinkle her nose. All of a sudden, her eyes became wide.
Bone! That's it! It's light but really strong – and all bones go together to make up the skeleton in a human body!
Becca clapped her hands together, pleased that she had solved the first clue. There were more on the page and she hoped they wouldn't be as hard as the first.
Tied in knots both one and two,
Silent tongue, I am a ____________
Becca sighed and rubbed her eyes. This was going to take some brainpower! What had a silent tongue? And what do you tie in knots? Becca searched her memory for an image that fit the description. One and two – did that mean a pair? And she just couldn't think of something that had a tongue but didn't speak. Except for...a zombie. Except zombies didn't come in twos - unless you were really unlucky!
Looking around, Becca wondered if all the clues revolved around something inside the tepee. The last answer, Ruff's bone, was certainly in here; maybe she could find the answer to this one too. She surveyed the tepee from top to bottom and after a minute, broke into a huge smile. There it was – an old shoe that Ruff loved to chew on. Tied in knots – well that was a shoe's laces. Shoes came in a pair – one and two – and – yes! - she had remembered that the flap of fabric on the inside top of the shoe was called a tongue.
Wow, thought Becca. That was a really cool riddle! Excitedly, she read the next one:
Ring of love that cost a dollar,
Lost then found, I am a ____________
Oh boy, thought Becca. There's no way I can solve this one. A ring of love? Was there a piece of jewellery in here? But most rings cost more than a dollar, especially wedding rings! She concentrated on the next part of the riddle. Lost then found... Looking around, Becca tried to find something of Ruff's that maybe had been lost for a while. Nope. Everything had been here for quite some time, she was sure, except for the bone that Ruff kept burying and then digging up – and that answer was taken! It was then that Becca noticed something about the first two riddles – the answer always rhymed with the last word of the first line. She studied them – stone then bone, two then shoe. The third riddle's first line finished with dollar. Now, what rhymed with dollar...
She laughed out loud when she solved it.
Ruff's old leather collar sat in one corner, buckled together in a perfect loop. Ring of love. It had been Ruff's first collar, bought at a garage sale down the road for one dollar exactly. Her parents had explained that their new puppy needed a collar to show people that she had a home with people who loved her – and to show where she lived if she ever wandered away and couldn't find her way back.
Lost then found.
Becca realised she was holding her breath, remembering Ruff as a rambunctious young puppy who would explore everything so happily and confidently.
That was just like me, she thought. All before...what happened on the bike.
Becca felt a deepening sorrow tug at her heart as she pictured Scotty and Ruff having the time of their life, together on the bike track. She could have gone with them but she was still too...afraid.
Slowly, she pulled her gaze back down to the page.
Warm in slumber, snug and flat,
Circled 'round, I am a ____________
With a giggle, she solved it straight away. The mat where Ruff slept lay next to her, and, like most dogs, she had a peculiar habit of walking around it a couple of times before she settled down for the night in it.
Circled 'round, I am a ____________
Becca wrote the word 'mat' neatly as the answer, noticing again how 'mat' rhymed with 'flat'. Her older brother was so clever! He loved her too - she knew that and, as proof, the last riddle on the page had a love heart sticker pasted next to it.
Strong and swift with golden curl,
Fearless too, I am a ____________
Was this something inside, too? What rhymed with 'curl'? What was strong, swift...and fearless? She went through the first few letters of the alphabet, adding them to the front of 'url' to make a word that rhymed with 'curl'. At the letter 'g' she stopped, and a flood of emotions bought a sting of tears to her eyes and a tightness in her chest.
Girl, the answer was... girl.
She was a girl, inside the tent, who had golden curls and was strong, swift, and fearless.
But when was the last time she had felt like that?
She knew, yes, she knew. It was the last time she had gone riding with Scotty and Ruff down the track to the waterhole. She had felt the wind against her face, and the thrill of jumping all the big mounds of dirt on the way. She could hear the birds squawking as she passed and one time, she even saw a kangaroo with a joey in its pouch. It had turned to stare at her as if to say what are you doing all the way down here on my little track, girl? Yes, she had been a girl, riding along, where the kangaroos and their joeys lived, and she had felt strong, swift, and fearless.
Becca hung her head.
She wanted to be that girl again.
The boys who had teased her that day had no right to take that away from her.
She knew what she had to do.
Twenty minutes later, she was hugging Scotty at the end of the bike track. As Ruff danced happily around them, Scotty tugged on one of her curls and said "I knew you could do it." Becca grinned up at her older brother; she had flown down that track, loving every second of it. She had landed each jump with confidence and great timing and she knew, just knew, that even if she fell, she would get back up and keep on riding. There was nothing like this – a beautiful trip through the gorgeous bush, and my – she had forgotten how spectacular the waterhole looked this time of year.
"There's one more thing to do." Scotty nodded towards Ruff, who had tentatively put one paw in the water. "I think you'd better have a word with her, don't you think?"
Becca knelt down beside Ruff and whispered in one big furry ear.
"There's nothing to be afraid of. You're my big beautiful Ruff and you're stronger and more amazing than you think. If I can do it, you can too."
She put her arm around the dog and led her gently into the water.
"Time for the girls to have their moment in the sun."
Ruff took a step on her own, then another step. In a few seconds, she was knee-deep in the water, after a minute she was paddling her way over to Becca, thoroughly soaked.
"Way to go, Ruff and Becca! There's nothing you girls can't do!" yelled Scotty from the riverbank and Becca knew he was right. At that moment, in the middle of that perfect day, she knew that she would never let another person stop her from believing in herself, and that anything she wanted to do was completely in her grasp, like the beautiful willow trees around her, that dunked their branches into the waterhole to baptise and celebrate one happy girl and her dog.