Beth wore her favorite pink smock. It had bottomless pockets perfect for carrying important things like handfuls of rubber bands, marbles the color of oceans, a red shoelace, a spoon, and two troops of plastic soldiers- one blue and one green.
Today the green soldiers were trying to capture the blue soldiers' flag. Secretly, Beth liked the blue soldiers a tiny bit better than the green but was always careful to divide the wins evenly.
On this particular August morning, the air was sunny and warm. Pools of shade from the maple trees dotted the backyard in exactly the right places. The battle - it was a friendly sort- was going well. Beth had set the soldiers between two small mounds of dirt and was making impressive sounds: Bang, bang! Boom! Boom! Akakakaka!
Everything was fine until a gopher stuck his head out of the blue side's hill and grabbed the little soldier guarding the flag. "Hey," Beth said as the soldier- a kneeling rifleman- disappeared. The fighting stopped. Of course, it did. You have to have sound effects for a battle.
She pulled the spoon from her bottomless pocket and started digging. The brown furry animal with the long teeth and - as she learned later from Uncle Henry- not one, but two sets of lips, was a gopher.
"Give him back," she said stabbing the spoon in the dirt. The gopher, with no intention of doing any such thing, was already far underground. Beth sat on her heels fingering rubber bands in her pocket, wondering what to do.
Nearby, under a tomato plant, was a rabbit. "Lose something?" the rabbit said. She had a dusty voice. Later in life when Beth frequented jazz clubs, she'd remember the rabbit whenever she heard a certain kind of smoky-voiced singer.
"That gopher took my soldier!"
"It's not his fault. You put it on his doorstep. You practically begged him to take it." Her nose twitched. "I'm amazed he didn't take more. George is a collector."
Beth quickly gathered her remaining soldiers and put them into her pockets. "What do I do?"
The rabbit smirked. "What do any of us do, sweetheart?"
The rabbit's answer wasn't helpful and Beth told her exactly what she thought of it. The rabbit twitched her whiskers and turned to hop to wherever rabbits hopped to. "Wait, please. I'm sorry."
The rabbit, who recognized a true apology when she heard one, stopped. Not wanting to appear too interested, she cleaned a paw. "Gophers are remarkable diggers."
"How do I get my soldier back?"
"Got any carrots?" Beth regarded the rabbit with distrust. Everyone knew rabbits liked carrots. "George has a taste for them."
Was the rabbit tricking her? "I don't have any," she said rummaging through her pockets to make certain. "I can get some."
The rabbit sat up. "What are you waiting for?" and Beth ran as fast as her short, chubby legs would go. She ran across the lawn, and up the back steps, and slammed into the house. She raced past her mother and grandmother having coffee in the living room, and straight to the refrigerator in the kitchen where she shoved a bunch of carrots into her pockets. Then as fast as she could, she ran past her mother and grandmother, flew out the door, down the back steps, and ran even faster-if that was possible- to the place where the soldier had so unceremoniously been taken. Panting she threw herself on the grass.
"What took you so long?" the rabbit said. "I was beginning to think you'd deserted."
"Never!" Beth held a carrot up in victory.
The rabbit's eyes glinted. "There's a fee for my help." I knew it, Beth thought, but this time kept her mouth glued shut.
"Two carrots," the rabbit said with a smug look.
"One and a half."
"One and a half if we get my soldier. One if we don't."
To seal a deal, Beth usually spit and shook hands but it didn't seem right when one of the hands was a paw. So she spit on her palm and wiped it on her smock. "What do we do now?"
The rabbit sat on her haunches. "We need George topside to negotiate. Put a piece of carrot near his hole."
Soon George's head was sticking out of the ground. "Hey, gopher, you stole my soldier. I want him back!" George grabbed the piece of carrot and disappeared. "It didn't work."
"That's no way to negotiate," the rabbit said.
Beth threw her hands in the air. "I did what you told me."
The rabbit sighed. "Give me a piece of carrot, I always think better with food." Beth broke off a piece of the rabbit's one-and-a-half-carrot fee and waited. "Try this," the rabbit said talking with her mouth full. "When George sticks his head up, show him a few of those carrots to get his attention. Tell him nicely," the rabbit said and paused, "that you'll trade the carrots for the soldier."
Beth broke off another piece of carrot and positioned herself next to the gopher's hole. When George poked his head up, she waved the carrots. "Hi Georgie, I'm Beth. I hear you like carrots." This time, instead of grabbing the little piece of carrot and ducking away, George's eyes darted between Beth and the bunch of carrots in her hand. "I'll give you three carrots for one blue soldier."
George was a good provider for his family but being handed three large juicy carrots was a windfall. It was something you might come across once in a lifetime if you were lucky. The problem was, George wasn't good at giving things back. It was true, the blue soldier wasn't anything he or his pups could eat. But that wasn't the point, was it? The soldier wasn't food for the body, it was food for the soul. It was art. Art that expressed something essential about who George was as a gopher.
George prickled with indecision. If he took the soldier from its perfect place, would Beth really give him the carrots? Perhaps it was a trick. Then he heard his wife talking to the pups in their den under the earth. "Genghis, stop teasing Georgina." He knew what he had to do and ducked underground.
"Where's he going?" Beth said in a frantic whisper.
"Wait and see."
"What if he doesn't come back? What if I don't get my blue soldier?"
"Patience." This was something Beth had been told many times. Sighing she folded her hands and tried not to fidget. Bees buzzed among the flowers; down the street, a bunch of kids played ball. The air smelled grassy.
Underneath the lawn, George ran as fast as he could to his special place for treasure. He gazed at his things. Here was the silver key, the red shoelace, the yellow doll's shoe. And here in the place of honor, was the blue soldier. With a heavy heart, he put the soldier in his cheek pouch and paused. Could he truly give it up? Was there no other way?
Topside, both the rabbit and Beth were waiting. The rabbit seemed to eye him suspiciously. It was hard to tell, George was terribly nearsighted. "What are you looking at?" he said. The rabbit smirked her reply.
Beth held up the beautiful carrots. "When you put down the soldier, I'll put down the carrots. We'll do it at the same time." Keeping their eyes tight on each other, Beth and George each lay their part of the bargain on the ground. Faster than a lizard, George pulled the juicy carrots downside. His wife would be very proud of him.
Beth slipped the blue plastic soldier- good as new except for a few teeth marks- into her pocket and handed the rabbit the rest of her fee. The rabbit twitched her ears in thanks and Beth sat leaning against the maple. It was a perfect August day. The air was warm without being too hot, and wispy white clouds were floating across the sky. Beth took the last carrot out of her pocket and broke it in two. She gave half to the rabbit and kept the other for herself. They munched in companionable quiet. "I'm Hazel," the rabbit said after a long stretch of chewing.
"Nice to meet you." Hazel continued to chew. "Isn't it interesting how you never know what a day will be like until you go through it?" Hazel twitched her nose in agreement. "It's like getting a present." Beth was very fond of presents, and thought to herself, that today was a very fine present indeed.