For Robert

This is a story I wrote for my adoptive son, Robert, when he was about 9 years old. He came to us at age 6, with a heart already protected by a hard shell, one that he used to make him impenetrable to the risks of warmth, affection trust. It was a shell formed by the experiences by those few short years of his early life, before we met him. The prospect of finding a way to breach it was overwhelming – as much to him as to us, his new parents.

There was once a tall strong oak. It bore a rich crop of fat acorns. But it was a harsh autumn. Wild winds blew, cold and fierce, ripping the acorns from the safety of the branches. Sharp frosts bit into them, freezing their little hearts and stealing their lives. Only one little acorn was left. With great courage and tenacity, he clung to the oak branch as the creeping winter stripped it of leaves and took away the last of his shelter. He tightened his grip and thickened his shell and shut out the cruel world outside. Somehow, he survived.

When the icy cold of winter rains changed slowly into the warm showers of spring, the little acorn – exhausted and battered – finally released his hold and let himself fall into the damp rich earth. The sun’s rays warmed his shell and swelled his heart, filling him with the urge to stretch and grow. But he couldn’t. The thick hard shell he had grown to shut out the bitter winter was too strong to allow his tender young shoots to break out.  The acorn was sad and frightened.  He wanted to grow towards the warmth of the sun, but he didn’t know how to break out of the prison he had forged out of his own determination to live. The days and nights went by, and the acorn’s heart withered with despair inside his shell.

One day, a young girl picked up the acorn. His shrivelled little heart quailed. What would this human do to him? The girl cradled him in her hand and carried him home to her mother’s kitchen.  The acorn’s despair grew. How could he hope to find life inside a house, away from the warmth of the sun’s rays and the clouds’ soft rains? Inside her mother’s kitchen, the little girl took a scouring cloth and scraped away the encrusted lichen and thickened shell of the acorn. She lay him in a soft bed of cotton wool, in a saucer, and set him carefully on a sunny windowsill. Every day, she dribbled gentle drops of water on him and spoke softly to him. The acorn remained afraid. The rough winter had taught him to be shy and cautious. It took a long time for him to trust what the little girl offered him. But finally the goodness of the water and the warmth swelled his shoots with so much life that they stretched and stretched against the crumbling shell. It bulged, creaked and finally cracked. Carefully, he poked his root into the damp cotton wool, and then peeked his first leaves out through the crack in the direction of the sunshine.

The little girl smiled with joy to see his life. She tended him carefully as his root grew long and his shoot grew tall and straight. The acorn, no longer small and weak, grew fond of the little girl and began to think he could not live without her. He was shattered when, one warm day, she carried him out to the bottom of the garden and planted him in the dark earth. That first night outside alone was terrible. The young plant bowed towards the earth and wept tears of sap from the ends of his leaves, heartbroken at being deserted yet again. He was convinced that he must surely die. But morning came. The rising sun caressed him with her first rays. The birds sang to him. The earthworms wriggled around his roots, bringing him air and stroking him with the movement of their long thin bodies. The days came and went, and the little plant slowly unfurled. He reached up and up, towards the blue sky and the racing clouds. He grew into a tall, strong sapling.

One day he heard the voice of the little girl in the garden and bent his leaves curiously in her direction, wondering what brought her back to him. There was someone with her. A man. Her father.

“See how my little acorn has grown,” the little girl said.

Her father laughed and ran his hand affectionately over her head. “So it has. Remember how you cried, when I said it was time to plant it outside? How you thought it would die? It would have died if you had tried to keep it inside, trapped. A fine young plant like that needs love and treasuring to burst its shell, to shoot. But once it is growing well, it needs freedom and space to thrive, to become what lives within it.”

The girl reached out and stroked her fingers gently over the leaves of the fine young tree. “I understand now, Dad.”

The acorn’s heart, which still beat within the growing tree, swelled with joy. He understood, too. The love the little girl had given him had made his grim survival through the bitter winter worthwhile. Her courage in giving him his freedom had given him the gift of life. A love and a life that he could, in time, pass on to his own acorns.