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By Zilpha Keatley Snyder
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Zilpha Keatley Snyder
All rights reserved.
Martha Abbott woke up on the seventh day of April and sat straight up in bed with her eyes wide open. That, in itself, was significant. As long as she could remember she had always awakened slowly and cautiously, testing yesterday gingerly with the tip of memory, before taking the plunge into cold bright consciousness. But on that April morning she had no choice. Something had reached deep into her dream and jolted her awake—and then quickly faded, leaving behind only four definite words. Something's going to happen!
Not that she hadn't had that feeling before—that knowing that something terribly good, or bad, was about to happen—but never anything so strong and certain. Never strong enough to shake her awake and then leave her holding her breath, paralyzed with expectation.
She was still sitting, staring, numb with wonder, when suddenly her eyes focused on the mirror across the room, and the spell was broken for the moment. After the fraction of a second it took to recognize herself, she laughed. There she was, stiff as a hinge, arms straight at her sides, long hair wisping across her face, and her eyes round and blank as two daisies. Blinking, she smiled, imagining daisy petal lashes, and climbed out of bed, almost forgetting about the warning.
But it came back, and it kept coming back. It would sneak out, sudden and stabbing, and then fade again quickly when Martha tried to hang on long enough to examine it. The second time was only a few minutes later, while she was brushing her hair by the window, and watching the sunlight turn the long straight strands from straw to gold. Something's going to happen! This time it shivered down her back, leaving a fading shadow that felt very much like fear.
It happened, next, on the way to school, Roosevelt High School where Martha was a Sophomore. She had just turned a corner when there on the sidewalk was a bird. It was a brown bird, a perfectly wild brown bird, but it went on sitting still while Martha bent down and picked it up. Of course, it did seem to be a very young bird, almost a baby, but it wasn't just that it was too young to fly. Because, after it sat in Martha's hand for a moment, it flew away. With just a very gentle boost from Martha, it flew away to a low branch of a nearby tree. It sat on the low limb, looking down at Martha, blinking its round black eyes, and suddenly, there it was again. Something's going to happen!
Nothing very special occurred at school, but that was to be expected. School seldom had the right atmosphere for significant messages. But one thing did happen. During drama class, Rufus gave Martha a flower. Rufus, who sat next to Martha in drama, was a special friend, and actually the fact that he gave her a flower was not so unusual. He often brought her little things as a kind of joke—a crazy little toy, or something funny from the newspaper, or a flower.
It was the kind of flower, this time, that made it matter. For Rufus had dropped into her lap a dark pink blossom of oleander.
"That's oleander," Martha whispered.
"Oh yeah?" Rufus said. "You couldn't prove it by me. It's that stuff that grows down by the highway."
"It's poisonous," Martha said.
"It is?" Rufus said, almost out loud, reaching to take it back.
"But only if you eat it." Martha kept it closed in her hand.
"Well okay, don't eat it," Rufus said.
Martha nodded. She twirled the blossom in her fingers and leaned toward Rufus to whisper, "That's me all right, beautiful but deadly."
Rufus snorted, and then they both sobered because Miss Walters was frowning in their direction.
Of course, the "beautiful but deadly" part had only been kidding, but oleander had been very significant to Martha once, and Rufus couldn't possibly have known about it. Rufus was a city boy, and that was probably the reason he didn't even know that oleander was poisonous. But the reason he didn't know the rest of it, was simply that he hadn't known Martha long enough. Only since September, and now it was April, and during that time Martha had never told Rufus anything at all about oleander.
The final warning occurred while Martha was on her way home from school. In a way it was the strangest, although Martha didn't realize that until much later. It happened while Martha was waiting for the light to change at an intersection in front of the school. Suddenly a voice said, "Martha? Is it Martha Abbott?" and there in a dusty station wagon was Mrs. Smith.
In spite of her ordinary name, Mrs. Smith was one of the most extraordinary people Martha had ever known. To say that she was the wife of the man who owned the riding stables where Martha had once spent a great deal of time, didn't begin to explain who Mrs. Smith really was, or why she had been important to Martha. But all that had been several years before, and it was a long time since Martha had seen her.
"Is it really you?" Mrs. Smith called, and Martha ran out to the window of her car.
"It's Martha," she said. "Hi, Mrs. Smith." She stuck her head in the window and said it again. "Hi, Mrs. Smith."
Mrs. Smith had a strange way of looking at people, a deep concentrated look, as if she could see things other people missed.
"You've changed a great deal," she said.
"I know," Martha said. "I'm not so fat and ugly."
Mrs. Smith smiled. "You're very beautiful, but that's not what I meant. Have you heard anything from—" But the light changed, and Mrs. Smith motioned Martha away and said, "Scoot now. Call me someday," and Martha had to run back to the curb. She didn't really think anymore about the meeting until after dinner much later.
Dinner that night at number two Castle Court in Rosewood Manor Estates was just the same as always. Everyone was there, at least all of the Abbotts except Tom and Cath Abbott, Martha's older brother and sister, who were away at college. The Abbotts present, besides Martha, included her father, Thomas Abbott, Junior; her mother, Louise Abbott; and her grandmother, Adelaide Abbott. Thomas Abbott was a lawyer, of the kind that mostly defends businesses against taxes. Louise Abbott was a housewife and didn't work, but she kept almost busier than if she did—at things like volunteer jobs and golf and staying very beautiful. Grandmother Abbott spent most of her time traveling and gardening and going to garden clubs, and she ordinarily only stayed at number two Castle Court during the best gardening months. The rest of the time her garden, which was very beautiful and elaborate, was Martha's responsibility.
The conversation that night followed the usual pattern. Martha's father talked about an especially difficult client, and her mother talked about her golf score, and Grandmother Abbott talked about the Hollandaise Sauce, which she had made herself because Martha's mother had been so late getting home. Martha, wearing her usual smoke screen smile, was not really listening, when suddenly one sentence ripped through the screen and whirled everything into chaos.
"Oh, by the way," her father said, "Joe Peters says the Carsons have shown up again. Joe was up in Edgeport today, and on his way back he saw them from the freeway. They're moving back into the old Montoya house again. I was beginning to think we'd seen the last of that bunch around here. How long has it been since they left the last time? Must be two or three years."
"Two years," a strange voice said, which Martha hardly recognized as her own. "A little more than two years." And even while she was answering, another part of her mind was thinking, "So that was it. So that was what was going to happen."
Martha's father looked at her as if it had just occurred to him that she might have a particular interest in what he had said. "You didn't hear from your friend, did you?" he asked. "Did she let you know she was coming back?"
"No," Martha said. "I didn't hear from her. Was Mr. Peters sure? How could he tell for sure it was the Carsons, all the way from the freeway? He couldn't recognize faces from there."
"No, I suppose not, but Joe said he saw a bunch of people unloading what looked like the same old red truck they used to drive. Besides, who else would live in that old shell of a house? It must have been the Carsons, all right."
"It must have been," Martha said to herself. "It must have been."
"Well," Martha's grandmother said, but not so much to Martha as to her mother, "I suppose now we'll be seeing a great deal of that Carson girl again. What was that child's name?"
There was an undercurrent in what Grandmother Abbott was saying, and everyone at the table knew what it was. She was saying that she had always advised against allowing Martha to spend so much time with the Carson girl. She was reminding them all of the things she had always said, but Martha, for one, didn't need to be reminded. She already remembered all the things Grandmother had said on the subject. Things like, "I can't understand why you permit it, Louise. It's not as if there weren't any other children her age in the neighborhood. There's that lovely little Peters girl right next door, and the Sutter children just down the block. And it's not just the child's unfortunate background. It's more than that. There's a strangeness about her—"
Martha remembered hearing Grandmother Abbott say that more than once. "There's a strangeness about her. A strangeness—." Suddenly an interior explosion shook Martha so hard that her smoke screen smile was blown away and she had to bow her head quickly to hide her face. Staring down at her plate she tried to explore the damage and wound up lost in a rushing tide of memories. Above and around her the conversation went on as if from a great distance.
Dinner finally ended and Martha, having cleared the table, was free to leave. Her father had made his regular retreat to the study with the paper, and in the kitchen Louise and Adelaide's regular polite argument was covering such things as "proper companions" and "interfering in your children's lives." Martha took her warm car coat from the hall closet and went out the double front doors of number two Castle Court into the April evening.
Martha walked uphill against a soft April wind, toward the unsubdivided green at the top of Rosewood Hills. Castle Court, which was formed by a cul-de-sac at the end of Castle Drive, was at the very top of Rosewood Manor Estates, so Martha had only to walk through the vacant lot that separated the Abbotts' house from the Peters' next door, and she was on a narrow foot trail that left suburbia behind. The path climbed steeply, zig-zagging through deep spring grass, and passing outcroppings of jagged turreted rock and scattered oak trees and madrone. The sky was just beginning to turn pink with sunset, but Martha could probably have climbed the narrow trail almost as well in complete darkness. All the hundreds of times her feet had climbed that path, walked it, run it, skipped or slid or scampered it, had printed a pattern somewhere in her mind. And now her feet followed that pattern automatically while her mind raced ahead, and back, rushed forward excitedly—and stopped—looking back longingly at yesterday and the day before.
Almost at the ridge of Rosewood Hills the path passed a small grove of old trees known as Bent Oaks, but Martha went on, straight up to where the path topped the crest of the hill and started down the other side. There, at the highest point, you could see beyond the northern slope of Rosewood Hills and catch a glimpse of a huge old ruin of a house. Half buried in orchard, the Montoya house was further hidden by the dark sweeping shadow of the freeway, where it dropped on a high overpass, down from a deep cut in the Rosewood ridge to narrow away into the distance.
Where Martha stood she could just make out part of the roof and upper story of the house, but that was enough to tell her that it was true. The Carsons had come back. Light was glowing in some of the upper windows for the first time in more than two years.
For a long time Martha stood looking down the dark north side of the hill. Below her the path quickly disappeared in the shadow of oak trees, and further down she knew it wound tunnel-like, under heavy brush, and then through the old plum orchard until it reached the house. Martha had been down that path once—only once. All the other times she had waited, as she would wait tonight, at Bent Oaks Grove.
The wind at the crest was not very cold, but Martha found that she was shivering. She turned back, and a few yards down the hill she took the turnoff to Bent Oaks. The trees of the grove had grown up among a very large outcropping of jagged boulders, and the path entered between two turrets of stone, like a narrow gateway between tall towers.
Stepping back into Bent Oaks Grove was like stepping back through time—two years of it. It was a jarring step—like the one that surprises you at the bottom of a dark staircase, when you think you've already reached the floor. Martha stood stock still, while bits and pieces of shaken up memories whirled through her mind. Then she moved forward.
The grove closed around her. Growing so near the crest of the ridge, the old trees were exposed to the full force of the wind, so that they had been bent in places almost to the ground. Some of the branches, leaning away from the wind, had grown in great rolling twists and curves only a few feet above the hillside. The huge gateway boulders on the downward side had caught years and years of dead leaves and eroded soil, until the floor of the grove had leveled. Scattered around this flat area, small outcroppings of rock jutted up to form almost perfect chairs and tables, or mysterious monoliths and sacred altars, depending on who was using them. On the upward slope, a dugout area under a slanting rock made a shelter, a wide and shallow cave, and inside there was a rough wooden floor raised about a foot above the ground like a stage. At the edge of the stage a narrow path through a crevice led upward steeply to a ledge above the cave.
Once on the ledge Martha stood for a moment before she turned to climb on up the hill. Then she scrambled over boulders and pushed her way through underbrush until she came to a place where a flat rock covered a small crevice. Pushing aside the rock she pulled out a rough wooden box. Inside the wooden box, wrapped in a faded mildewed quilt, was another box—a metal one this time, a fishing tackle box.
Taking the metal box with her, Martha climbed back down to the ledge and from there by the crevice stairway to the stage below. The hinges of the metal box were so crusted with rust that she had to hit them sharply with a stone before the lid would open—but when it did the past sprang out at Martha like the creatures from Pandora's box. Swarms and clouds of memories rushed upwards from every object her fingers touched.
There was a peacock feather, a small leather-covered notebook, a ring box holding an odd-shaped amber stone, a tiny silver bell, some matches and pieces of candle in a glass jar, two horsehair rings, one carved ivory chopstick, a small crumbling bouquet of dead flowers, a large crystal doorknob set in a base of clay, and a yellowed envelope containing a photograph.
It took a long time to lay each object and its memories back in place, and when she had finally finished, Martha closed the box and with it beside her, she sat down on the edge of the stage. She pulled her legs up under her skirt, wrapped her arms around her knees and began to wait.
As she waited she began to say, "Ivy, Ivy, Ivy," letting the sound blend into the rising voice of the night wind. It was not loud enough for a call, or even an exclamation. After a while it began to seem more like a question.
Excerpted from The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Copyright © 2004 Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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