Beyond the Barbed Wire

By Anna Mitchael

It's graduation season in Texas.

This means in the coming weeks young people will be walking across stages in auditoriums and gymnasiums, on football fields and basketball courts all over the state. They will be collecting diplomas. They will be throwing caps into the air. They will be sitting at pushed-together tables in restaurants, flanked by proud family members. The air around them is thick with all the possibilities that come along with the unknown. This is as it should be. Everyone deserves to hear someone say, “I see your efforts, and I believe in your tomorrow.”

And when I say everyone, I mean you too.

When I lived out in the country in Coryell County, if I wanted to exercise, I would run or walk the county road that led from our house up to the main highway. The road was about a mile and a half long, and it was covered in caliche gravel. When it hadn’t rained in a while every step on the road would make these small puffs of white dust that blew up from the road under your feet. When a car rumbled down the road it created a huge puff of dust. One afternoon I was running, and a neighbor who lived on the road slowed as her car reached me. When the car stopped completely she waited a minute to roll the window down, until the dust puff had settled.

“How’ve you been?” she asked.

I had been fine, normal, nothing special. I had been noticing lately that the days and weeks felt like the county road we were on — terrain I knew well and could not be surprised by. But I wasn’t going to tell her that. At the grocery store the week before I asked a checker how her day was going and she said horrible because her husband was a jerk and her kids were ungrateful, so I knew firsthand how uncomfortable it could be when someone decided to go deep on what you meant to be a superficial question.

“I’m doing pretty good,” I said. “You?”

She nodded, looked around for a moment, then spoke. “Saw a mountain lion the other day.”

“A what?” Surely I had heard her wrong.

“A mountain lion,” she repeated. “Early in the morning, out on the edge of our property. I want you to know because here you are running on the road, you should watch out.”

Then she looked right past my mouth that was gaping wide open, waved in a kind, neighborly way and drove on.

Long after she had turned onto the main highway. I remained standing there. I looked around at the trees I had memorized over the years, at the enormous boulders on the other side of the barbed wire fence. All the terrain I thought I had known so well. I breathed in, and the air was thick with something more than just the usual dust puff. I never saw the mountain lion — not that day or any other after it — but I did run home like a woman on fire that day. Who knew what was beyond the barbed wire fence? Or behind the boulder?

Is there really any predicting what could be around the next corner?

Good luck to this year’s graduates. And to the rest of us too.

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