The tunnel of woods from the stables to the Square was dark, and though I’d never been scared of being by myself, I hurried. All the other girls were in class. What kind of animals lurked in the North Carolina woods, what kind of poisonous plants? I knew all of that in Florida. Here I was an innocent.
There wouldn’t be as much to be wary of here, at least concerning the natural world. Winter came every year and weeded the animals, the plants. In Florida nothing died, nothing retreated.
When it was cool enough, Sam and I liked to roam out back, past the orange grove, miles away from the house. One day, when we were eleven, I brought Sasi with us, because it was one of the last tolerable days before summer. Sasi was young then, too, could be ridden for hours and hours and still have something left. Sam was walking ahead of me, looking for blackberries; I was on horseback, following him. It was April, a few weeks too early for blackberries, but Sam thought we might get lucky.
“Is Sasi tired?” Sam called out.
“No,” I said. “He likes it out here.”
“Do you like it out here, Sasi?” Sam asked, in an English accent, and I giggled.
We walked some more. Sam disappeared into a throng of bushes.
“Even if you find any, they’ll be tart,” I said.
Sam reappeared, empty-handed.
“Because it’s too early,” I explained.
Sam grinned. “I knew what you meant the first time.”
I turned around and reached into my saddlebag for a canteen; there was a sudden dip, a feeling of weightlessness, and then buzzing. At first I didn’t understand the noise, but when I felt a sting on my cheek I knew that Sasi had stepped into an underground nest of yellow jackets.
“Sam!” I screamed. I slipped off Sasi, who was stomping his hooves into the dirt, clouds of dust rising around his legs. “Sam!”
“Thea,” he said, and his voice infuriated me: it was so calm, so slow.
“Help,” I cried, slapping at my cheeks. “Hurry!”
“Thea,” he said, “listen to me. Listen,” he said, as he walked toward me.
I shook my head furiously; I could feel my cheeks swell, my throat tighten. I could see red welts rise on my arm, I felt them on my neck. I tasted bile.
“Thea,” Sam said, and when he reached me he touched my forearm. “Look at me.”
But I couldn’t. I looked at Sasi, who was furiously biting his leg where he had been stung; I looked beyond Sam, at the miles and miles of scrub oak and oak trees; I looked at the sky, which was blue, not a cloud in sight. I could hear my heart beat. I could smell my sweat.