Set in a world similar to our own, during a war that parallels World War II, A Green and Ancient Light is the stunning story of a boy who is sent to stay with his grandmother for the summer in a serene fishing village. Their tranquility is shattered by the crash of a bullet-riddled enemy plane, the arrival of grandmother’s friend Mr. Girandole—a man who knows the true story of Cinderella’s slipper—and the discovery of a riddle in the sacred grove of ruins behind grandmother’s house. In a sumptuous idyllic setting and overshadowed by the threat of war, four unlikely allies learn the values of courage and sacrifice.
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|Publisher:||Gallery / Saga Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
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A Green and Ancient Light
remember the plane hurtling above the village. It left a trail of thick gray smoke, and its engine roared and coughed. Grandmother and I were working in the garden, digging potatoes. We could see the plane was an enemy fighter, part of the squadron we’d heard earlier as it growled north, heading up the coast. Now alone, skimming the mountain slopes, the plane dove toward us like a sorrowful, stricken angel. I was on my feet by the time it careened right over our heads. Its shadow made the sun above me blink.
Grandmother uttered a reproachful sound, her digging-fork across her knees as she tipped back her hard brown face, shielding her eyes from the glare. She didn’t spring to her feet as I did. Nothing about the war ever made Grandmother dash to the window or pace the floor or otherwise put herself out. She didn’t watch caravans, and she pretended not to listen to bulletins on the radio; she clucked her tongue when they interrupted the orchestra broadcasts, though she never actually switched them off. But neither did she stop snapping beans or darning socks. And I never saw anyone draw her into speculation on how things were going for the troops.
We could see the enemy insignia on the wings, and a row of bullet holes ran the length of the fuselage. There was an explosion; black smoke billowed. The engine sputtered out entirely, and flames rolled back over the cockpit. I dashed to the corner of the house to continue watching. With an eerie silence, the plane cleared the orchards and the front street; it missed the fishing boats in the green harbor, and it missed the rocks. Out where the sea deepened to blue, it smashed into the waves, throwing up a tower of spray.
I turned to look at Grandmother. My eyes must have been wide, and I think my mouth was open. My feet were tugging me into the side yard. Grandmother began scratching in the soil again, with a little grunt that meant, “Well, that’s that.”
But seeing that my knees wouldn’t bend, my feet wouldn’t be still, she said, “Go on, then. Run down and see.” There was no disapproval in her tone. She was talking to a nine-year-old boy for whom a great many things were intriguing: moths on the screen, moss, the squirming life beneath rotted logs, and planes that fell from the sky.
Quite a crowd had gathered on the front street: people on bicycles, fishermen knee-deep in piles of nets, three sisters from the abbey clutching their rosaries and looking paler than usual—and of course children from near and far, wriggling over fences, pounding along the dusty lanes—everyone pointing and talking at once.
“It exploded,” someone said. Indeed, a last, thick plume of black smoke hovered over the waves, at the end of the gray swath across the sky. “I thought it was coming right down on the street!”
“Rattled the cans on the shelves,” said Mr. B ——, the grocer. He had white hair and black sideburns, which seemed to me the opposite of how most men’s hair turned white.
“Woke me up from a nap,” said someone else. “I was sure they were dive-bombing the cannery!”
“Don’t like it this close. Don’t like it at all.”
“Nothing left of that plane. Went straight to the bottom, I guess.”
“He’s a goner. That’s no way to die, theirs or ours.”
A woman in a green print dress kept smoothing her hair, as if the wind from the warbird’s passing had left her in hopeless disarray. Two boys jabbered about how they’d thought the plane would hit the boats. They glanced at me but were more interested in the plane for now; children in the village generally seemed curious about me, but we rarely crossed paths—boys my age kept busy helping their elders on the docks or in the vegetable gardens, and I wasn’t out of the cottage in the evenings when they might have been free. I wasn’t opposed to making friends here, but mostly I missed my two closest friends back home.
The wind picked up, scattering the smoke. A little yellow dog ran through the crowd, barking and wagging its curly tail.
Climbing over the low stone wall, I stepped out of my battered shoes and padded across the wet sand, right to the water’s edge between piers. At this end of the village, the land sloped down gently to the shore, and there were no cliffs. The sea-smell washed over me, huge and fishy and humid, with that dank hint of all that it hid, ancient wrecks and monsters that made whales look like minnows. Gulls screeched, riding the wind currents. Beside me, a tiny crab scuttled across a rock, and a raisin box bobbed, its sides puckered and bleached nearly white. Sand oozed between my toes; a wave rolled in, and soon my pant legs were drenched to the knees.
I could look right out through the harbor mouth to where the plane had gone down. There was not a sign of it now. Only the waves rose and fell, their edges dazzling in the light.
* * * *
I won’t tell you my name or that of the village where I spent that spring and summer when I was nine. I won’t because you should realize there were towns just like it and boys just like me all around the sea—and in other countries beyond the mountains, and all over the world. We awoke in our nights to the growl of trucks, the barking of loudspeakers. (I was one of the fortunate, for whom the guns were a rumble in the distance.) The men in our families were soldiers now, regardless of what they’d been before; many were already dead. The women worked in factories, in hospitals, or stayed at home to care for the very young.
And then there were those like me: too old to be carried about, too young to work or fight. We were sent off to the countryside where no one thought bombs would fall. We came to know our relatives, old people who had known our parents in another time. In my case, it was only for the late spring and summer, while my mother was getting used to a new job and my baby sister was a newborn. (Schooling in those years was haphazard. Sirens interrupted classes. High-school boys went to war, and classrooms became factories where girls sewed. A season later, my elementary school closed entirely for two years.) I might have been of considerable help to my mother; I was old enough for that. But my father felt strongly that it was time I got to know my grandmother.
It is a strange thing to spend your days with a person connected to you only by the link of someone you both hold dear, but the young one they knew is not quite the same as the older one you know. It’s like talking to someone through a hedge. Now and then, you see an outline, the edge of a face between leaves. You can only walk along in search of a gate.
On the table beside my bed at Grandmother’s cottage, I kept a framed photo of the four of us: my papa in his Army captain’s uniform, his eyes alight with kindness, one arm around my mama and one hand on my shoulder; my mama, cradling my newborn sister, holding her so that her little face showed, Mama’s face inclined as if she’d only just managed to turn her gaze toward the camera as the shutter opened. And there I was, looking uncomfortable in my school coat and tie, my hair sticking up though my mama had just combed it down. I looked at the picture so much that spring and summer that I knew every shadow in it, every wrinkle of clothing; I could see our faces when I wasn’t looking at it. In the picture, both my parents were smiling as if there were no cares in the world.
I loved the letters Mama sent me here, warm and full of the hugs and kisses that embarrassed me in public but that I was glad for in writing. She would give me reports on the castle—Papa and I had built a castle out of wood, complete with turrets and a drawbridge, and I had painted it all; it sat on a table in my room but was too big and delicate to bring here. So, my mother would write to me about the weather over the castle, about the feasts they were having in the great hall. She tried to tell me about the knights and their quests, but she didn’t understand that part very well. It was all right. I was always happy to hear that the King and Queen were well, that no enemies had invaded. I wrote back to her and to my father, though I knew it took longer for mail to reach him. Grandmother didn’t read the letters I wrote or the ones I received. “That’s your business,” she said, which was a new arrangement for me, that I might have “business” apart from that of the grown-ups around me. She taught me once what to say at the post office, showed me the jar where I could find coins for posting letters, and after that, I was on my own.
I missed my parents, but I had stopped crying for them in the dark hours. After a few weeks in the village, our city began to feel like a distant dream. I knew it was real, that if I rode the train again, it would be there, and its bricks would become the reality once more, and this village would be the dream. One person, I’d come to understand, was actually many people—people of different ages, people who lived in different surroundings; these people all had the same name and knew something of each other, but they lived entirely separate lives.
* * * *
It was a wondrous village Grandmother lived in. I was used to straight, level streets, advertising signs and honking cars, puddles and dodging bicycles and people who hurried along with blank faces. There was more sun in Grandmother’s village, and ordinary life seemed half like a festival. People stopped to talk when they met, setting down their shopping baskets. There were benches everywhere that seemed placed for this purpose, often roofed by trellises of flowering vines. Many shops had open fronts all day, the wares spilling out and piled in the street.
I’d never seen streets like these! They wandered as if a great wave had washed up through the village, its water coursing among the buildings, finding a thousand ways eventually back to the sea; and these runnels had left magical sand that had hardened into cobbles, flint paths, and lanes of hard-packed earth. At its end farthest from Grandmother’s house, half of the village climbed a cliff, so the streets there would turn without warning into steep stairways. There were no posted names, no numbers on doors or lanes. People would emerge from gates beneath ceilings of vines, from doors set right into the rock, and I always wanted to crane my neck and peer past them, sure I might glimpse stairs winding down to kingdoms under the ground where the light came from jewels in the walls.
Down at the cliff ’s foot, the sea had carved out high-rimmed basins and caves where the waves rushed in through narrow mouths, flooding the rocks with surges of foam. Grandmother had led me there in the first week, and we’d watched the scurrying crabs, our faces wet with spray, our ears half-deafened by the sea’s roaring. “People have drowned here,” Grandmother yelled beside me, her grip fierce on my arm. “Do not ever come back here alone. Do you understand?” I nodded, sensing how important it was to her. She’d wanted to show me these merciless sea-basins before I discovered them on my own.
* * * *
A day or two after the trip to the cliff ’s foot, I learned Grandmother’s other sacred commandment, but this one she didn’t warn me about. It happened like this.
I’d made my first trip alone to the post office, mailed letters to both my parents, and was feeling quite happy with myself as I returned toward her cottage down the main street, which at our end of the village was wide and mostly straight. I kicked a series of pebbles, overtaking one and kicking it ahead of me until it bounced too far aside, then choosing another. As I admired the dense, round tops of some orchard trees, I came alongside Mrs. D ——, whom I knew to be Grandmother’s friend. Mrs. D —— had a round face like a china plate and small, sparkly eyes. She laughed pleasantly and often, and she had a way of asking one question after another, so that you could get only about half an answer in for each question and you wondered whether she was even listening. As I got near Mrs. D ——, I saw that she was carrying her wicker basket from the shops and a parcel besides, and remembering my manners, I offered to carry them for her. She lived not far from Grandmother’s, and on the way.
“What a gentleman you are!” she exclaimed, gladly handing them over. They were both quite heavy. “Just like your father. Oh, he was a fine boy, and he is a fine man, and it’s no accident, because you come from fine stock!”
“Thank you,” I said. I’d only ever heard “stock” in reference to cows, and I wondered how it was that our family had come from cows, or what exactly Mrs. D —— meant.
“Are you settling in? It must be so different for you here, so quiet, and none of your friends about, just us old folks, and our funny ways, our speaking—it’s the sea-speech. We sound like the gulls, I suppose, like the waves all rolling, one into another. Mumbling like the ocean. The city-folk say they can’t make pails or pitchers out of what we say. Can you understand the people?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, supposing that a “Yes” answered more of her questions than it didn’t.
“And as smart as white gloves!” she cried proudly, patting my shoulder as if I’d won the races. “But of course you would be a smart one, your father’s son, and M ——’s grandson. Sharp as shears, the whole family! I must tell you, I’m honored to call your grandmother a friend! And a wonderful friend she’s always been.”
I nodded and smiled, readjusting the parcel.
“But how about you; I want to know more about you! What do you like about our village? Aren’t the flowers pretty? We take great care with our flowers! ‘You can grow them beautiful only if the heart has good soil’—that’s what we say!”
She paused expectantly, but I wasn’t sure how to answer. I wasn’t entirely convinced the question had much to do with me at all.
“The flowers are very pretty,” I said. “And I love the trees. The mountains—it’s all so green. It’s like the woods go on forever.”
Mrs. D —— looked taken aback, which surprised me. “H’m. Well, yes. The woods go on, but they’re no place to be. There are wild animals, and worse things.”
“Worse things?” I was suddenly much more interested.
Her sparkly eyes looked away from me, up toward the endless ranks of the treetops on the mountainsides. “I’m sure your grandmother doesn’t want you going up there, and she’d be a fair sight better than me at telling you. But it’s best not even to think very loud about the forest. Where the sun doesn’t go and the salt breeze can’t blow away the cobwebs, no good can happen, and that’s a fact. Witch-weasels and sickle-winds, and old Mr. Clubfoot with his hollow back—lots of no good in the woods.” She shook herself like I’d seen a friend of my mother’s do when eating a pickle. “Enough of that! You’re safe down here. ‘Mountains for woods, and houses for people.’”
I nodded, thoroughly intrigued. It was clear to me that Mrs. D —— thought the woods were every bit as deadly as Grandmother told me the sea-basins were. Grandmother’s caution made perfect sense to me, but I believed the best of trees. I wondered at how anyone could be afraid of any gathering of peaceful giants that grew from nuts over decades or centuries with such patience, such purpose. Granted, I had never been into a deep wood. But this one above the village called to me.
Mrs. D —— dove back into her comfortable nest of topics. “Did you have a garden in the city? Nearly everyone has a garden here! ‘A house without a garden is a rock in the sand.’ I’m sure you help M —— with her garden, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I was learning to answer quickly, in the instant that Mrs. D —— took a breath.
“Hers is one of the loveliest in the village, and she uses every inch of it so well, the moss and the shade and the sunny stretches! A greener thumb I’ve not seen. And always a marvel, always some changes every year. We old folks are set in our ways, but your grandmother has a young heart, a young heart, I’ve always said, like the princess in the old story that sees the world new each morning—do you know that one?”
“No, ma’am,” I said. I’d thought I knew all the fairy tales, but I didn’t know that one. Maybe the village folk had different ones.
“‘Looking-glass, candle, moon on the sea’!” said Mrs. D ——, and I supposed she was telling me a part of the fairy tale. But she raced on, as she always did. “We look forward each year, I can tell you, to what she’ll plant where, what will sprout out of this corner or that! She must be planting now—are you helping her plant these days?”
I nodded, thinking of the hours Grandmother and I had already spent digging and filling hanging pots, filling window-boxes, transplanting shoots from indoors to outdoors, opening envelopes of last year’s seeds that Grandmother had carefully labeled.
“And what are you putting into those long boxes under the front windows, where the sun shines so nice?”
Without a thought, I answered. I’d learned the name from Grandmother, and I’d repeated it to myself over and over because it sounded like a long-ago kingdom: “Setcreasea.”
“Setcreasea!” cried Mrs. D ——, clapping her hands. “Utterly lovely! The long, purple stems and leaves, like the most beautiful twilight has gathered right beneath your windows and stays all day! And then the pink flowers, the crowning glory! Yes, setcreasea love the cramping for their roots. Don’t water the boxes too much! But your grandmother knows that; she’s been at it longer than most and knows what they all need, every last bloom. I think they tell her, the flowers. Do you think?” She batted my arm again, jovially. “Here we are! Thank you so much, you dear, gallant gentleman!”
I was grateful that we’d arrived at her gate. I was feeling worn out, and not from the shopping burdens.
“And what’s it to be at the back?” asked Mrs. D ——, taking the basket and package from me. “There in the shade, where the trees lean in? She always has the best ideas for what to put there!”
I thought for a moment. “I think she said fuchsia,” I said. “For the butterflies.” By habit, I said “I think” so as not to sound too forceful, but I knew that’s what Grandmother had planted there.
“Fuchsia! Of course! Like lanterns in the dark—a brilliant choice. Fuchsia will outshine her trumpet vines of last year, and we all thought those were divinely inspired! Such a sharp, clever young man you are, to keep all these names straight—not that I’m surprised, considering the source. ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’—that has a good meaning, too, you know. Well, now, thank you again, dear sir. I suppose you’d best hurry on back to her. Good work to do!”
I thought nothing at all of the conversation then, only that I was glad to be out of it. I hardly thought of it when I told Grandmother I’d helped Mrs. D —— with her groceries, and Grandmother had asked me to repeat the conversation word for word.
“What did she say then?” Grandmother asked. “And what did you say? What did she say next? What did you say?” Unlike Mrs. D ——, Grandmother waited for each of my answers with her full attention. Even then, I didn’t understand her interest.
When Grandmother didn’t say a word to me for the rest of the day and all through supper, I began to think back through what had happened, what Grandmother had asked me to repeat. As we finished washing the dishes in utter silence, Grandmother’s movements brisk and icy, I felt a growing, hollow ache in my chest. My eyes filled with tears.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.
Grandmother looked up at me from drying her hands. “What are you sorry for?”
I hung my head, unable to endure her gaze. My stomach hurt, and my face burned. Somehow, I had transgressed; I had let Grandmother down, and I hated that I’d done so. I still didn’t understand it exactly, but it had to do with telling Mrs. D —— too much.
“Your business is yours,” said Grandmother, and I thought at once of my letters, my trip to the post office. “My business is mine. We don’t talk about the garden. It reveals itself in its own time.”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated, really crying now, my nose streaming.
“You didn’t know. Now you do.” Grandmother rinsed a cloth, wrung it out, and handed it to me. “Wipe your face.”
* * * *
Spring became summer, and Mrs. D —— learned that it was no use asking me anything else about the garden, though it did nothing to dampen her good cheer. I was greatly relieved when the garden finally revealed itself, for I felt a stab of guilt each time a villager said to Grandmother, “I hear it’s to be setcreasea this year, and fuchsia in the shade!”
More than once, when Grandmother seemed to be in the best moods, I asked if we could go up into the forest. She nodded and said we would soon, but in the moment, there was always something to do in the garden or something to buy or mend or clean. Once I’d taken note of the fact that Grandmother didn’t seem to share Mrs. D ——’s dread of the woods, I asked her why Mrs. D —— was afraid.
Grandmother shrugged. “She can’t see into the woods, so she assumes all the bad she can’t see is there. She thinks the sea is friendlier, but if she were out in a little boat, or swimming in it, it would occur to her that she can’t see under the water, either.”
* * * *
I liked the postmaster, who at first pretended I was his boss. The joke began because I was always bringing him work to do, my letters to weigh and stamp. He would snap to attention when I’d come in and tell me that he’d just swept the floor or organized the closet. Once, he said, “I washed the window, Boss. Does it pass inspection?”
“It looks good,” I said.
“Too clean, though. Now V —— can see me when he goes by, and he comes in and talks both my ears off. Man should be in politics. I can only get rid of him by saying you’ll fire me if you catch me standing around.”
“I won’t fire you,” I told him.
“You’re a good boss. Got more letters for me today? I won’t let you down, Boss.”
After a few weeks, when we both got tired of the game, he would ask me about myself, leaning on his elbows, peering at me over the tops of the eyeglasses that clung to the last half-inch of his nose but never fell off. He had thick black hair, a lean, droopy face, and huge eyes that rarely blinked. It impressed me how he could be kind without ever laughing or smiling. Although he was curious about what I found to do in the village, what I was reading, what I wanted to be, or what I thought, he never asked about the garden or Grandmother beyond whether she were well. I’d learned from the Mrs. D —— incident to be careful of what I said. Still, the postmaster was the one grown-up that I usually saw on my own, without Grandmother, so he felt like my friend.
“Your father,” he asked me, “he’s an officer in the Army, isn’t he?”
“Yes. A captain.”
“That’s very fine! You should be proud of him. Are you proud of him?”
“Good man,” he said, and I wasn’t sure whether he meant my father or me. “I remember him here. Smart! Always first in the school, always doing things—involved, you know, and famous. Famous as one can be here!” He laughed softly. “He used his head, didn’t he, before they got him into the Army? In the city, he was some kind of a . . .”
“Locomotive engineer,” I said. “He designed a diesel engine.”
“Smart,” said the postmaster with admiration. “You got his smarts?”
I shrugged and looked at my shoes.
“Sure you do. You got them.”
One day, the customer in line ahead of me, an old man in a brown hat, told the postmaster about some wild vegetables he’d gathered in the forest. Of course, I paid close attention when the man muttered about how dark it was up there, even in the morning.
The postmaster looked hard over his glasses. “Not up here!” The gesture he made with his head seemed to indicate the mountain slope above our end of the village.
“No, no, of course not!” said the man. “Above the old harbor, past the point.”
The postmaster nodded, and the man added, “Hard telling what grows up there!”
When he’d left, the postmaster and I were alone.
The postmaster greeted me by name, not with “Boss” anymore. “Been writing again, huh? How much paper you got up there, anyway? Do they bring it to you in trucks?”
As I handed over my letters—one each to my parents, and one each to my friends—I asked, “Are the woods above my grandmother’s house really haunted?”
He froze, staring at me with his wide, dark eyes. Then he looked at my letters for a long time, as if the addresses were new to him. Finally, he glanced back at me and opened the stamps drawer. “Yes. They’re haunted.”
“I don’t know what ghosts are,” he said. “But there are places that belong in the past and need to be forgotten.” He paused then, and for the first time I’d ever seen, he pushed his glasses higher on his nose and resettled them. “You don’t want to go up there, G ——. You shouldn’t ask about the woods, either.”
I was too respectful to ask him why not, but the question was burning in me like a coal.
He could see it. “They teach curiosity in school, don’t they? It’s not always a good thing.” He leaned on his elbows and gave me a long, sober look. “The world’s getting worse. Until it gets a lot better, it’s best not to ask too many questions.”
I supposed he was thinking of the war. But he was afraid of the woods, afraid like Mrs. D ——. I didn’t see how the war could relate to the forest, or how the forest could relate to a past that needed to be forgotten.
* * * *
And so the spring passed, gardens all through the village sprouted into blazes of fragrant loveliness, and we came to the day of the shot-down airplane, when it crashed into the waves and sank into the unseeable depths, down to the gardens of the mer-people. I imagined them all in a wide circle among the coral, holding their tridents, their hair floating, their silvery tails slowly fanning to keep them upright, as the wrecked plane floated down to rest in their midst.
That very night—quite late in the night—Grandmother and I were awakened by a rapping at the door. I was jolted to full consciousness at once and sat up in my squeaky bed, my heart pounding. Of course I imagined soldiers, come to tell us to evacuate. In the faint light of the lowering moon, I located my suitcase, always packed with the things I considered most important, always ready to be snatched up in a dash out the door. But in another moment, I realized that the urgent tapping came from the back door, where a single mossy step led down into the garden—hardly the entrance soldiers would approach. Nor was the sound very loud; nor was it accompanied by any shouting.
I swung my feet to the floor, the boards cool and smooth. In the next room, Grandmother rustled about—pulling a housecoat on over her nightgown, I supposed. After turning the cast-iron doorknob, I peered out into the darkness of the main room as Grandmother emerged from her bedroom.
Her expression was serious but not afraid, which I found reassuring. The knocking had stopped, and a silence descended that was more nerve-wracking than the knocking itself. With hardly a glance at me, Grandmother crossed to the back door, picked up the walking-stick from the umbrella stand, and demanded, “Who’s there?”
I heard the murmur of a reply but could make out none of the words. Grandmother, from her position, heard enough to satisfy her; she put down the stick, lifted the latch, and drew open the door.
Though the garden farther out was bright with slanting moonlight, the back step beneath the trees lay in deep shadow. The silhouette there belonged to a thin person in a rumpled felt hat and a long coat. When the door opened, this person began to bow and speak in a soft torrent of words—a man’s baritone—sonorous, like that of a singer or radio announcer.
“My dear M ——, forgive the intrusion.” (He called my grandmother by her first name.) “I am so sorry to disturb you at this hour, but a matter has come up . . . or down, rather . . . and it would seem swift action is called for. It is—well, you know better about these things.”
Grandmother had been listening with a fist on her hip, her other arm gripping the hat rack to steady her. Now she smoothed her tangled hair and pulled her housecoat closer about herself. “Come into the garden,” she said to the man. “You always think more clearly in the moonlight.” With a stern look at me, she added, “You stay there.”
I nodded readily.
The man in the felt hat seemed to notice me for the first time, and his frame stiffened.
“It’s my grandson,” said Grandmother, pushing the man ahead of her. “I told you he was here. Have you forgotten, or were you not listening again?” Her glance repeated her orders to me, and then the door closed.
I stood in the doorway of my room, bewildered. Even after three months, I knew so little about my grandmother. Apparently, this man was no stranger to her, and their conversations frequently took place by the light of the moon. Grandmother, who never went into the street by day without her headscarf and her collars buttoned, thought nothing of being outdoors in her nightclothes with this gentleman. My parents had mentioned no other relatives in the village.
The main-room windows looking out on the garden were shuttered at night. I considered opening the door just a crack—but I didn’t want to disappoint Grandmother again. I hovered on my threshold for a long time, then sat on my bed. For reassurance, I glanced at our family photo, but it was too dark to see us. Still, I knew we were all there, inside the frame, and my parents were smiling, my sister newly born.
The night was warm; summer had fully arrived, and it came with an airiness much more pleasant than the muggy nights in the city, where the heat took on garbage smells and lay heavy and still among the buildings. Grandmother’s front and back gardens were overrun with blossoms and aromatic trees. She was trying to teach me the names of them, but most flowers were as new and strange to me as the village. I suspected, moreover, that the names by which Grandmother knew them were not always their names as listed in books. I left my room’s shutters open at night, because I didn’t like pitch blackness. My window peered out over one of the fuchsia boxes. I could look at it without guilt now. One afternoon, out of the blue, as if reading my thoughts, Grandmother had said, “I was mostly angry at H —— that day.” (She meant Mrs. D ——; that was her first name.) “Using you like that—bah! She knew what she was doing.”
I sometimes crouched among the fuchsia, in the shaded gallery of the side yard, where the white and magenta blooms draped down from the box like a primeval jungle. Turning my head now, I could see the moon touching the treetops—only a few nights past full, and still mostly round.
After what seemed a long while, the back door opened again, and I returned to my open doorway.
“Get dressed,” Grandmother said, marching past me. “It will be light soon. We may as well start today early.”
“What’s happening?” I asked. “Who was—”
“Get the big shears and the brush knife,” she ordered. She paused in the door of her bedroom. “There’s a place you should see, anyway. I’ve been meaning to show you, and time is getting on. Today’s the day. Yes, you should come: I may need your help.”
“But—” I was speaking now to her closed door. I could hear her bustling about on the other side. “But where are we going?”
Her words were hard to catch as she opened drawers and lifted squeaky lids. “You like your stories of the long-ago, don’t you? Curious and strange things—monstrous creatures?”
I held my breath and hurried closer to her room, my heart racing again. She’d closed the back door; our visitor was either gone or waiting outside.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, we’re going to the grove of monsters.”
* * * *
With the moon down, the night was very dark as we left by the kitchen door, let ourselves out by the back gate, and climbed through the steep field of arbors and the open meadow. From every side came the scent of living, growing things, so different from the city’s smells of dust, rust, and engine exhaust. Grandmother carried an old-fashioned lantern that she’d lifted down from a shelf and lit with a match. It smelled of heat and the oil it burned, and it threw a circle of golden light around us.
There was no sign of the man who’d come to our door. “That was Mr. Girandole,” Grandmother explained when I asked her again. “He’s a very old friend. He’s gone ahead of us.”
I was overawed by this sudden turn of events—we were really going up into the forest, the place I’d wondered about for so long. It crossed my mind that I might be dreaming, but everything was too detailed and continuous to be a dream. I could feel the tag of my shirt scratching against the back of my neck; occasional birds called. I didn’t want Grandmother to change her mind, so I kept all questions to myself. Somehow, talking would seem intrusive in the night. Besides, I was burdened with a bucket, a metal pan inside it, and the garden tools Grandmother had asked for. She’d tied them in a canvas bundle and put other things from the kitchen into a large carpet bag while I dressed. The bag hung from her shoulder; in her free hand, she gripped her briar walking-stick. I marveled that we were doing this, all before Grandmother had had so much as a cup of tea.
The grasses glistened with dew that soaked my pant cuffs in no time and dampened my ankles, though my old leather shoes kept my feet dry. Mist flowed along the ground under the grape trellises. Insects sang all around us. The sky was a deep blue, sparkling with stars. I’d never seen so many stars in the city. By the time we reached the forest, I’d already seen two shooting stars flash and vanish.
I suppose it would have made sense to feel some kind of dread. But Grandmother was not afraid.
We didn’t follow a path. The lantern’s glow fell in warm swaths on the moss and leaves, sending shadows lurching among the trunks. We switched back and forth in the steeper places, sometimes coming to outcroppings of bare stone where Grandmother would perch for a while to rest. In one narrow ravine, tree roots formed a natural staircase. The mist floated thick in places, its frosty whiteness broken by glistening black trees.
Beneath the hem of her dress, Grandmother wore thick woolen stockings, and her feet were snugged in sturdy leather high-topped shoes that I suspected had once been my grandfather’s, though he had been dead for many years. Like most villagers, she was accustomed to walking. Had Grandmother lived in the city, I doubt she’d have considered taxis worth the fare.
As we progressed up the mountain, the stillness deepened. The voices of insects and night birds faded away, and even the wind ceased to stir leaves or creak the high boughs. I wondered if this solemnity always filled the last hour before sunrise, or whether it was because of the place. Were monsters watching us now, lurking beyond the lantern’s shine?
Grandmother poked her stick at a moss-bearded boulder on our left, then at a dead tree on the right with two limbs like the dangling arms of a person. She was figuring out the way to go.
The brush rustled, and something ghostly and pale moved slowly between the trees, just beyond the point at which we could see any details. I kept still, watching it, and didn’t dare to speak. I thought it was a four-footed animal, probably a deer, though it might have been anything.
When it had passed, Grandmother led us onward again. Even in the wildest stretches, the footing was never too difficult. We crossed carpets of leaves, stepped over logs crusted with fungus like fairy dishes and cups; we traversed aprons of moss so plush that I felt guilty to set my feet there, as if I were blundering over someone’s bed. Though Grandmother never issued a specific warning, I carefully avoided treading on any mushrooms or stepping into the rings or half-rings they formed.
We came up onto a level shelf where the trees grew ancient and immense, soaring like cathedral pillars. As we rounded a shoulder of rock, I looked ahead and nearly shrieked. Dropping everything, I covered my mouth, feeling that the breath had been sucked out of me.
Grandmother raised the lantern toward a terrifying sight.
A human figure—a man—dangled limp, hanging among the branches. All around and above him was a web of countless strands, a silky whiteness draping the limbs, billowing gently with the wood’s breath. I thought of the spiders in Grandmother’s garden, of the webs they spun in the darkness, and of the tiny winged things caught there when the sun rose. But the spider that had spun this web must be the size of a horse.
My scalp felt pierced with cold needles. I turned in a circle, searching the gloom above and behind us.
“What’s wrong with you?” Grandmother shot me a scathing look, apparently unafraid to use her voice here.
“Where’s the spider?” I blurted.
She narrowed her eyes. Then her expression softened, though she didn’t smile. “You silly boy. That’s not a spider web. It’s a parachute.”
At once, my face flushed with heat. I knew I should have understood what the cords and the pleated silky cloth were. But it was a dark place, and I’d been looking for monsters.
Grandmother moved forward again, prodding her way through some bushes to circle the man and eventually to stand directly beneath him. His boots swung with the smallest rocking motion about two body lengths over her head. She poked with her stick in the leaves around her shoes.
“He’s lost some blood,” she said. Then she raised her voice and called up at the man, “Hey! Can you hear me?”
There was no answer, no movement. I could see that the right leg of his canvas trousers was soaked with blood. I crept closer. At first, I’d thought his head was bald and blackened, perhaps as an effect of the giant spider’s venom; now I saw that he wore a close-fitting leather pilot’s hat.
He hung completely limp in his harness, supported by two broad straps above his shoulders. When a draft of air bellied the chute and stirred the bundles of cord, he twirled ever so slightly.
Trudging a few steps away, Grandmother stooped and picked up something . . . a heavy twig. She clamped her stick in her lantern-hand, took aim, and flung the twig up at the man. It missed him by a wide margin. So did her second try, with another twig . . . her third bounced off his hip.
Grandmother breathed something that might have been a curse word, set the stick and lantern down, and ordered me to help her.
It wasn’t as easy as it looked. A chunk of bark I threw almost hit the man’s arm.
Then, with a loud whop, a rock of Grandmother’s struck him squarely in the stomach.
Immediately, the leather-capped head flew up, and the man shouted and fiailed his arms and legs, looking like a marionette . . . an angry, blood-soaked marionette. His eyes were hidden behind big goggles. The language he was shouting in was not ours.
It was then that I finally made the connection. The plane that had fallen from the sky to crash into the sea . . . Clear and bright in my memory, I saw again the emblems on the wings and fuselage. This man above us had parachuted out of it. He was an enemy fighter pilot.
I cried out as I saw him pull a handgun from a holster beneath his arm.
Spinning right and left with the frenzy of his struggles, the man yelled a stream of harsh-sounding words, trying to aim the gun at Grandmother. His arm swayed and bobbed, the gun bouncing up and down.
Grandmother said nothing. She stood as straight as her curving back would allow and watched the man. I have no doubt she came within a hair’s breadth of being shot, but she didn’t shout back or try to run. She only stood and breathed and studied the pilot trying to get her in his gun sight.
But I hollered enough for both of us. I ran toward her, screaming at the man not to shoot. The goggled eyes turned toward me, and the gun wavered uncertainly, swinging in my direction, then back at Grandmother.
The man looked up into the nest of straps and lines that held him. He clawed at the buckles on his chest, but his panicked shouts had now taken on the tones of complaint. He gesticulated with the gun, now waving it in the air, now pounding it against his side. At one point, he seemed to be weeping.
“That’s enough!” Grandmother had picked up her walking-stick, and something in her voice got the man’s attention. She pointed the stick at him and shook it. “Enough,” she repeated. “Drop that gun right now and be still if you want any help from us.”
“Shut up!” yelled the man. He spoke at least a little of our language. “Shut up! No drop gun, no drop gun!”
“Shoot it, then!” Grandmother called back. “Shoot it, and everyone in the village will hear you. Soldiers will come. Do you want their help or ours?”
It was hard to argue with her logic. After a few more epithets, he stuck the gun back into his holster.
“Not there,” said Grandmother, pointing with her stick. “The ground.”
This seemed too much for him, too tall an order, but then he lost consciousness again. He’d missed the holster, only shoving the barrel beneath his arm—and when his limbs went slack, the gun tumbled onto the carpet of leaves.
I stared and thought about how close to death we’d come. After a pause, Grandmother bent close, regarded the pistol as if it were dog manure on her front walk, and picked it up by its middle. Holding it at arm’s length, she moved off behind the pilot’s back and hid it among a pile of rocks.
“He’s alive, then,” said a voice at my back, and I jumped.
It was Mr. Girandole, peering around the bole of a tree and wringing his hands, like someone in a play.
“Too alive for his own good,” said Grandmother.
Gray light was brightening the thickets. Beyond the wood, the sun was about to rise. The leaves and trunks were no longer entirely black, though the mist still floated in curtains. The air was damp and cool in a fresh, pleasant way. Birds chattered again, near and far.
I had my first good look at Mr. Girandole. He came forward with what seemed reluctance, as if he would have preferred to watch from the shadows but had no choice. His thinness made him seem taller than he was; as he drew near, I saw that he was scarcely taller than Grandmother. His face was mostly large eyes and a prominent, sharp nose, his mouth and inconsequential chin half-hidden by a short, groomed mustache and beard. I could not imagine his age: perhaps thirty, perhaps fifty.
His skin was dark, only a shade lighter than his brown whiskers. He wore a knee-length coat, the belt cinched tight, and had the hat pulled low, so that the rumpled brim covered his ears. There was an oddity to his walk, which I guessed must be a limp.
Smiling awkwardly, he offered a hand. From his manner, I couldn’t help thinking of a child who has been ordered to shake the hand of a dubious stranger. His fingers were surprisingly long, and the back of his hand was hairy. I wondered if he were a foreigner, perhaps from behind the mountains—though he had no noticeable accent.
I was none too eager to shake his hand either, but as he was a friend of Grandmother’s, I did so.
“Well, it’s a fine mess,” he said, trudging past me and returning his hands to his coat pockets. His gaze took in the dangling pilot and all the entangled folds of parachute, the skeins of cord.
Grandmother stood studying the problem too, her palms on her waist. “He’ll die if he keeps hanging there,” she said. “May die anyway.”
Mr. Girandole nodded. “Which is why I thought it best to . . . As you can see . . .”
Grandmother paced slowly, examining the trees and limbs.
I was a passionate climber of trees now that I had a whole garden full of them to choose from. Grandmother had learned early that I was easily entertained by sitting in a fork among the boughs, reading one of the books I’d brought. Now I guessed what she’d had in mind when she’d said she might need my help.
But there was no way to climb these gigantic trees. The first limbs began high in the air, and no branch came anywhere near the ground. It would be impossible to get above the pilot in order to cut him loose.
“Let’s gather leaves and dirt,” Grandmother said at last. “Pile them right here.” She pointed with her stick at the bloodstained forest carpet straight below the hanging man. “Should have brought the rake and spade.”
“Ah!” said Mr. Girandole, as if he grasped her plan. She handed him the bucket I’d carried, and he hurried off in one direction; Grandmother untied the canvas bundle and led me in another. Finding a patch of soil where few plants grew, she sliced into the earth with the brush knife. Onto the square of canvas we piled handfuls of crumbly dead leaves and dirt. Beetles and gray rollup bugs scurried between our fingers. Grandmother hummed to herself, exactly as she did when working in the garden.
When we had a load, we dragged it back to the pilot. A drop of his blood spattered the canvas as we shook the soil loose. He groaned but did not raise his head.
Mr. Girandole worked quickly, bringing his third or fourth bucketful. He glanced up at the man and pursed his lips. “I fear this may be in vain.”
“H’mm,” Grandmother agreed. We headed back for another load. I looked with interest at a deep bed of plush moss, but Grandmother shook her head. “We’re not tearing up the grove for him,” she said, and I remembered the monsters. This was their home.
At first, we labored within the circle of the lantern’s glow, placing it on the ground near the growing earth pile, but when the forest lightened, Grandmother had me blow the flame out. Birds warbled, flitting from branch to branch. From the direction of the village, far away, a late rooster crowed.
Even by daylight, this section of the wood reminded me of parlors I’d seen—dusky rooms with high ceilings and forbidding furniture, reserved for times of greater importance than the present. And yet in other ways, this place was like nothing in any human dwelling. There were age and stillness here. The furnishings were alive.
Twice as we worked, the man over our heads woke up and grumbled. I supposed he was feverish.
“Perhaps we look sinister to him,” said Mr. Girandole, meeting us as we emptied our loads of earth together. “Perhaps he thinks we’re digging his grave.”
“Perhaps we are,” said Grandmother.
Here, where none but the rarest sunbeam reached the wood’s floor, it was still a summer day. My shirt was sticking to my back, wringing wet, and Grandmother had long since shed her scarf. Mr. Girandole, in his unseasonable coat, looked about to expire.
He dabbed with his sleeve cuff at his forehead beneath the hat’s brim and glanced furtively at me, not for the first time.
Grandmother announced that it was time for us all to rest. She perched on a rock, and I gratefully flopped down on the ground nearby. “Really, Girandole,” she said. “How long are you going to keep this up? Whose eyes are you afraid of here?”
Mr. Girandole’s mouth twitched. His gaze flicked toward me, then up at the man in the tree, who hung limp again. Two crows hopped along the limbs, clearly talking to each other as they assessed the pilot—speculating.
Mr. Girandole sighed. “I suppose you’re right, M ——.” He scrunched his brows, took a breath, and played with the cuff of one sleeve. Several times, he seemed about to speak but didn’t—and always his eyes darted back to me.
Grandmother propped her arms on her walking-stick, laid her head on her wrists, and closed her eyes, lazily tapping one foot.
“Well,” said Mr. Girandole. “You see . . . That is, er . . .” Seeming to find his focus then, he crouched beside me and held up a spindly finger. I couldn’t help looking him up and down, trying to decide what was so unsettling about the way he crouched.
Yet it was also hard to look away from his luminous brown eyes. “Young sir,” he began with determination, “you have heard, I take it, the tale of Cinderella?”
Grandmother snorted with amusement—why, I wasn’t precisely sure—and continued her impression of nap-taking.
Mr. Girandole examined his never-still fingers, as if finding his words there. His nails had soil caked beneath them now, as mine did; his hands were smudged with drying muck.
“A lost slipper,” he said. “A slipper of glass—or of fur, as the tale used to be told. The details change. The truth . . . the truth behind the story . . . is that no foot would fit the shoe but hers—the foot of that one girl. Why do you suppose that was?”
I blinked, thinking of the story. “She . . . had small, dainty feet.”
“Do you really think so?” Mr. Girandole leaned forward earnestly, and I flinched, unsettled.
“The prince searched the length and breadth of the land!” he said. “Maidens from far and wide tried to force their feet into that slipper. Are we truly to believe that Cinderella had the smallest feet in the kingdom? The tale always assures us, no matter who tells it, that she was beautiful . . . that the prince had to find her again, at any cost.” Mr. Girandole spread his hands decisively, as if I could not fail now to see his point. “Tall people and small people can be very beautiful, of course. But could she have towered over him, or stood no taller than a child? Surely she must have been of a fairly ordinary size. If the prince had been looking for someone of extreme stature, why let all the typical maidens try on the slipper? Do you see?”
I had no answer. He did make an excellent point.
Above us, the pilot moaned and murmured something under his breath.
Mr. Girandole looked down at his own worn boots. “Cinderella’s foot wasn’t larger or smaller than that of most women. It was of a different shape altogether.”
Grandmother raised her head and said matter-of-factly, “That’s true. As I first heard it, the stepsisters mutilated their own feet trying to make them the right shape. One cut off her toes. The other cut off her heel.”
“And both attempts failed!” said Mr. Girandole. “If the shoe fit Cinderella’s foot, what does that tell us about her?”
I tried to imagine her foot, and the picture in my head wasn’t pretty.
“Why, she must have had neither,” said Grandmother brightly. “Neither toes nor a heel.”
“And what does that leave?” Mr. Girandole finished. “And who gave her the slipper? Who changed her fate?”
“F-fairy,” I managed. “Fairy godmother.” The sweat on my face and in my shirt had grown chill.
“And you don’t just get one of those.” Leaning still closer, he lowered his voice. “For reasons beneficent or nefarious, the tale handed down to us has been altered to obscure Cinderella’s origins. The fact is that she was ill-treated by her step-family because she was different.” He glanced sideways, conspiratorially, then straight back at me. “Cinderella was not a daughter of the Second Folk or humans. Her people were older.”
Before his words had quite sunk in, Mr. Girandole plucked loose the laces of his right boot, grasped it in both hands, and pulled it off. There, in the somnolent light of morning, I saw protruding from his trouser cuff a bony ankle covered in coarse brown hair—and instead of a foot, the sharp, split hoof of a goat.
I sprang to my feet, barely containing a yelp. “Old Mr. Clubfoot,” Mrs. D —— had said. “Witch-weasels and sickle-winds.” I backed away, heart pounding.
“Sit down,” Grandmother told me gently but firmly. “Don’t be rude.”
“I suspect it was a fur slipper,” Mr. Girandole said. “A hoof would shatter a shoe of glass.” He looked up at me with a sad, lop-sided smile.
My mind was so numbed that my body was left to make the decisions, and it decided on flight. I turned and bolted into the forest, too deeply shaken to obey Grandmother’s order that I stop. The ground descended in a slope, and the undergrowth became denser. Bushes clutched at my knees; branches lashed at my face. I skidded, landed on my arms, and got up again, dodging right and left between the trunks. As I careened down into a wide ravine, my pulse pounded in my ears.
It wasn’t long before I came back to my senses. Clearly, Mr. Girandole meant me no harm. I didn’t run far. But I ran just far enough, crashing through briars and low branches, to carry me headlong into the grove of monsters.
Looming above the bushes straight before me was the huge, dark head of a beast.
I stopped so abruptly, my feet shot out from beneath me, and I landed sitting, paralyzed with fear. The creature, too, seemed frozen in rapt attention, its round eyes flxed on me, its jaws gaping wide. Neither horse nor lion, it had round ears high on its head and tufts of streaming hair between them and its mouth. Overlapping plates of leathery hide armored its muzzle and neck. From its back, in the grove’s half-light, rose two shadowy wings.
I was certain this was my last moment of life—that the beast would spring upon me, snapping tree limbs with its lunge, and devour my upper half at one bite. I flung up my arms to cover my head.
But after a long space, when I opened my eyes again, I saw that the beast had not moved. Still its bulging eyes watched me, and still its jaws gaped; yet I heard no rumbling breath, no ponderous movements. Birds twittered, and a breeze stirred the branches.
Eventually, it occurred to me that the monster’s grayish hue was not elephantine skin but the gray of weathered stone, that the darker patches on its sides were fans of lichen, and that fallen leaves clung to its back. The beast was a statue—a craftsman’s sculpture.
I sat there breathing, clutching my shirt-front, the sweat drying on my neck. As I rose to a crouch and looked around, I saw that fantastic shapes loomed everywhere, half-buried in the undergrowth. Bearded stone faces peered between vines; a muscular giant towered among the trees; a sea serpent reared above green waves of bushes; a stately king or god occupied his throne. In the distance, a tall tower was just visible past three interposing trees. As I studied it, tilting my head to one side and the other, I saw that this building leaned at an odd angle, as if stuck in the act of toppling over.
So, these were the monsters, and this was the haunted woods, the sacred woods, a garden long overgrown and abandoned, hidden in blue shadows, in shafts of early sun. How truly strange it was! It sang to my heart in a silent voice. Every vine-obscured shape intrigued me—every secret space drew me forward. I wanted to discover every figure the garden would reveal. Yet I remembered how I’d left Grandmother and Mr. Girandole. With a last, longing glance, I hurried back toward them.
Mr. Girandole seemed to have been more worried about me than Grandmother was. He breathed a sigh when I reappeared, and he kept glancing at me as if seeking some kind of reassurance. His boots were both in place again, and I felt bad for reacting with such shock to his hoofed feet. He was Grandmother’s friend.
Grandmother watched me with a serious expression, waiting.
Mr. Girandole had taken off his coat and held it folded over an arm. Beneath, he wore a gray shirt with old-fashioned, pointed collars. When he laid the coat neatly on a rock, I saw the reason for his odd gait. His legs, clothed in trousers the color of dust, bent differently from those of other people. His knees were apparently backward, sticking out behind him. Despite myself, I felt another rush of fear, but I resolved not to stare. I showed him a sheepish grin, which seemed to relieve him further.
Grandmother said, “Have you been to the grove?”
I nodded and fell in beside her as she took up the brush knife and started back to work.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked.
Again, I could only nod. The grove seemed too significant for me to wrap words around.
Grandmother scooped decaying leaves. “I first found my way there when I was younger than you. That was a long time ago. Obviously.”
I noticed that Mr. Girandole’s hands paused in his own labor across the clearing. Just for a moment, he was motionless, gazing at the ground—listening or remembering something.
I asked Grandmother, “Which monster did you see first?”
“The mermaid. I came upon her from behind, and I knew at once she was a mermaid, though she has two tails instead of one. I wondered why she wouldn’t turn and look at me. I supposed she was angry at me, like my mother. That’s how I found the place, you see: I was running away from a scolding at home.”
I laughed. This was the most Grandmother had ever told me about herself at one time, and I was enjoying it.
“What had you done to get in trouble?”
She shooed a beetle off our canvas. “I don’t even remember now.”
Mr. Girandole spoke as he emptied his bucket. “You’d gone out to play in your new shoes and lost one under the hedge, and you tore your dress on the fence.” He looked away suddenly. “At least, so you told me once, I think.”
Grandmother chuckled. “If you say it was so, it was so.” To me she added, “Girandole remembers everything.”
We worked then in silence. My mind was busy, thinking of Mr. Girandole’s goat-like legs, of his Cinderella story . . . and of the monsters in the grove’s half-light. At last, I said to Grandmother, “That’s all the people are afraid of—those statues?”
“That’s all I know of that could have started their foolishness,” she said. “Old stone shapes in a forest.”
Every now and then, Mr. Girandole would bound toward the pilot and wave his arms to drive off the crows, who were hopping nearer and nearer in the branches.
“His eyes should be safe enough behind those goggles,” remarked Grandmother.
“All the same,” said Mr. Girandole.
After a moment, Grandmother looked at me and said, “There’s a riddle to it, though—that garden of monsters. The longer you look at it, the more questions it raises. It’s a big mystery, a puzzle that wants a solution, though I can’t guarantee it has one.”
I waited for her to say more, but typically, she didn’t.
There was so much I wanted to know, but it seemed rude to ask. Did Mr. Girandole have those feet because he was born with a deformity, like a boy at my school whose right arm was withered and small? Or was he really a different sort of person entirely, like Cinderella?
* * * *
“All right, then,” said Grandmother, when we’d emptied a last canvas-load of earth into a pile that was over knee-high. “See if you can wake him up. If not, we’re back to where we started.”
Dusting her hands on her skirt, she looked at Mr. Girandole and me until we went hunting for sticks and pebbles and started aiming them once more at the man hanging above us.
“Hey!” Grandmother yelled at him. “You! Wake up!”
A few of our tosses clopped, not too hard, against his jacket. At first, I thought we’d taken too long, that he was dead; but after a minute or two of being pelted, he lifted his head again. He seemed to have trouble focusing, and he’d grown paler. At some point, he had pushed the goggles up to his forehead. His eyes, clearly visible for the first time, made him look gentler than the enemy faces on posters. He was younger than I’d thought, too.
Grandmother had been digging inside her carpet bag, and now she held a ball of twine that I remembered seeing in the kitchen—string she saved from grocery parcels, all tied together into one much-spliced strand of unknown length. Keeping the string’s loose end in her hand, she gave the ball to Mr. Girandole to throw.
“Catch this,” she ordered the pilot.
Mr. Girandole’s first throw was perfect, the ball hitting the man square in the chest, but the pilot seemed not even to have seen it coming. He didn’t so much as raise his arms, and the ball dropped back to the ground, string unwinding.
I retrieved it, hurrying to gather up the loose coils and rewind the ball, which had become tiny. Next, I took a turn, sending the ball up to a zenith near the man’s arm. He took a feeble swipe at it, but again the ball came down uncaught.
Having an inspiration, Grandmother instructed Mr. Girandole to throw the ball over the man’s head, between the two straps of his parachute.
Mr. Girandole managed it nicely, and now the twine, completely unwound, ran from Grandmother’s hand, over the pilot’s shoulder, and halfway to the ground again, the free end floating on a draft.
Grandmother told the pilot to take a firm hold of the string, and he did so. When Grandmother tied her end to the brush knife, I finally saw her plan.
“Pull this up,” she commanded him. “Cut the straps.”
The pilot understood, seeming to find new strength. Mouth set in concentration, he hoisted the scythe-like instrument up to himself. Grandmother had tied it just below the crescent blade so that it hung handle-down, jiggling and swinging as it rose.
“Don’t drop it,” Grandmother said.
He grasped the handle and tipped back his head to examine the parachute straps.
Grandmother called, “As soon as you start to fall, throw the knife that way.” She pointed across the glade, away from us. “Don’t land on it.”
“Not stupid, Grandma,” the pilot said, beginning to saw at one strap.
“How am I to know that?” Grandmother said, folding her arms and watching critically.
The two crows cawed and flew away.
I didn’t know if the man would have the strength to free himself, but Grandmother kept the brush knife sharp. Soon, the first strap parted. The pilot paused to grin at us. His face glistened with sweat as he set to work on the second.
With a ripping and a snap, the last strap separated, and the man finally completed his fall from the sky. He didn’t throw the brush knife far, but far enough. He flopped into the dirt pile, sending dust and leaves flying.
Because of his injured leg, I supposed, he screamed through clenched teeth and passed out again, lying spread-eagled on his back.
“Well done, M ——!” said Mr. Girandole with enthusiasm, patting Grandmother’s shoulder.
She carried the carpet bag over to the man’s side and rolled up her sleeves. “Now we see if he’s savable. We’ll need a fire.”
“I laid the wood already.” Mr. Girandole pointed toward the trees through which he’d arrived earlier. “It only needs lighting.”
“See to it. Wash out that bucket in the stream and get some water boiling in the pan. We’ll need all the water you can bring us, so fill the bucket again, too.” Grandmother handed him two potholders. “When it’s ready, bring it here.”
With a nod, he hurried off at a trot, the bucket swinging from his arm. I allowed myself to stare at his retreating shape, intrigued by how nimbly his strange legs carried him over the roots.
Grandmother had me take one edge of the canvas, and we shook it hard, beating it as clean as we could. Then we spread it beside the pilot for a work-space. She took her shears and cut the pilot’s pant leg open from ankle to hip.
“This will be an awful sight,” she warned me, and it was. As she peeled back the soaked cloth, we could see sticky blood still welling from at least two jagged wounds in his upper leg. I thought I’d been ready for anything, but I had to look away, and for a moment I thought I would be sick.
“Sometimes, it’s best not to eat breakfast,” Grandmother said quietly, thumping my back.
“Did another plane’s guns do that?” I asked when I could speak.
“I don’t think so,” she said, “because his leg’s still here. Something exploded—maybe flak. He may have metal or glass in there. We can’t see much till it’s clean.”
She snipped through the ties of a protective vest and unzipped his leather jacket beneath, pulling it open and passing her sun-browned hands over his shirt, along his sides, up to his armpits. She told me to undo his chinstrap and pull off the leather hat, which I did without much trouble. The man was no more than thirty. He was going prematurely bald, with a point of hair on his forehead and a much scarcer patch behind that.
Grandmother’s fingers found blood oozing from three more places; in all, the pilot had injuries to his right leg, right side and shoulder, and his neck below the left ear, though that last one seemed little more than a graze.
Lifting his head, Grandmother poured something into his mouth from a dark brown bottle which bore no label. The smell of its contents made my eyes water. The pilot coughed.
“Can you hear me?” Grandmother said, in the tone she used when talking to Mrs. O ——, who was hard of hearing. “What is your name?”
“R ——,” he said, breathing heavily, blinking up into the leaves, where his parachute hung in an undulating white ceiling, the bundles of cord swaying. The pilot smiled faintly and raised one finger to point upward. “Circus. Circus tent.”
“Yes, well, R ——,” Grandmother said, “you must make a decision. Do you want our village doctor? He will come here if we ask him. But he is an important man with a position—he will report you to the Army.”
“No!” The pilot shook his head. “No doctor.”
I looked anxiously at Grandmother.
“The other choice is that I can try to stitch you up. I’ve delivered babies, and I sewed up my cousin once, on a farm. But I’m no doctor. We can’t take you to the village. You may die.”
R —— seemed to be searching for Grandmother’s hand. She didn’t help him find it. “Fix up me,” he said. “Please. You, please. No doctor. No Army.”
Grandmother sighed and pushed the bottle’s neck against his lips. “Then you’d better drink a lot of this.”
We waited for Mr. Girandole. The sun had climbed much higher; it was mid-morning. An engine droned in the distance. We’d heard and seen so many planes that we recognized it by the sound as a cargo plane.
What was happening scared me. If the Army or the police found out that Grandmother had helped an enemy pilot—or even failed to report him—she would be arrested. I had no doubt that any one of our neighbors in our position would have gone immediately to the police office and turned the matter over.
I saw Grandmother watching me. “Do you think this is wrong?”
Wordlessly, I shook my head no.
“I’m not fighting a war,” she said. “Nor is this man now. These woods are not a battlefield.”
I nodded agreement.
“Where is Girandole?” she muttered. “I hope he’s not sitting there staring at the pan. They never boil when you do that.”
“Why didn’t he lay the fire closer?” I asked.
“I expect he was afraid this man might wake up and see him.”
I gnawed my lip, and at last I came out with the question I really wanted to ask: “What is Mr. Girandole?” But at that moment, he came trudging into the glade, holding the steaming pan between the potholders, the full bucket dangling from his arm.
“Good.” Grandmother leaned close to her patient. “R —— Are you good and drunk?” He moaned as she pried the bottle from his fingers, checked the amount of liquid inside, and re-capped it. “He ought to be,” she said.
R ——’s eyes were closed, and his breathing seemed more regular.
“Oh, my!” said Mr. Girandole when he saw the pilot’s mangled leg. He backed a few steps away.
Grandmother drew out a metal soap box and we washed our hands as thoroughly as we could with the cold water, each taking our turns pouring dollops from the bucket over the other’s hands. For good measure, we splashed and rubbed our hands with the alcohol, too, then used more soap.
Next, she produced a clean rag. I marveled at all she’d thought to bring in the carpet bag. I’d seen her make rags by cutting up threadbare clothes that were beyond repair, saving the buttons from shirts in an ornamental lidded tin. Satisfied with the pan water’s temperature, she soaked the rag and wrung it out over the pilot’s leg wounds, rinsing them clean. I winced at the sight.
Mr. Girandole retreated to a rock and sat down, facing toward the trees.
The injuries were bad. They looked deep, and it seemed to me that some of the flesh was missing. There was an awful whitish layer of something exposed—muscle or fat or deep tissue—that should never be seeing the light of day.
“Maybe this is too much education for you,” Grandmother said, giving me the rag to hold and telling me to keep it off the ground. It was so hot, I nearly shrieked; I couldn’t imagine how she’d swished it through the pan and wrung it out. I tossed it from hand to hand until it had cooled a little.
She fished in the carpet bag, came up with a pair of tongs like those I’d seen my mother use for handling canning jars, and steeped them in the hot water. “Do you want to sit over there with Girandole?” she asked.
“I’m all right,” I said.
“Then put the rag in the pan and take off his jacket. We’ve got to do that shoulder before the water gets cold.” She’d produced a needle and a spool of thread. As I wrestled the flak vest, gun holster, and jacket off R ——, she threaded the needle and dropped it, thread and all, into the water, leaving the thread’s end hanging out over the side as a way to retrieve it.
R —— didn’t come fully awake, but he groaned as I shoved him around, his head lolling. Blood dripped from his neck wound, and his shirt’s right sleeve was drenched. By the time I had the jacket off, my hands were sticky with blood. I looked at them in dazed revulsion.
Grandmother tossed me a dry rag. “Wipe them on this, and then spread it under his shoulder so he’s not lying in dirt. And cut his sleeve off.”
Mutely, I nodded and set to work.
“If you can spare me,” said Mr. Girandole, “I’d best put out my fire.”
Grandmother was too busy to answer him. After a moment, he stood up—but he had gone no more than two steps before Grandmother called him back. “There’s too much bleeding here for me to stop with a needle and thread,” she said. “Take the brush knife with you. Get the blade red hot, and bring it back here quick.”
“Oh, dear,” said Mr. Girandole, looking queasy. He picked up the long-handled knife and hurried off.
I couldn’t watch as Grandmother probed with the tongs, searching for shards of anything that might be in the pilot’s wounds. But even with my head turned, the wet sounds drew icy sweat from my pores.
“Wring that rag over this,” Grandmother ordered. “I can’t see what I’m doing.”
I tried to rinse the wounds without looking as she went in with her fingers, pulling out jagged pieces of black metal.
“If we don’t bleed him to death, it’ll be a miracle,” she muttered. “The blood can’t congeal with all this water.” Finished with the leg, we worked on the shoulder, where Grandmother found more shrapnel. By the time she’d finished, she had quite a collection of metal shards.
The wound in the pilot’s side wasn’t deep; something sharp had gouged him as it passed. Grandmother examined the gash in his neck, and then there was nothing to do but wait. She squeezed shut the worse of the two leg wounds and held it until Mr. Girandole came charging back, the knife’s curved blade glowing, its tip bright red. I saw that he’d taken off his boots, presumably so he could run faster and be less likely to trip. Sure enough, his left foot matched his right, a sharp, cloven hoof beneath a goatish ankle.
I couldn’t watch the next part, either. Grandmother took the rag in one hand and the knife in the other. With my arms crossed over my stomach, I got up and moved away. Behind me, I heard the trickle of water and a sound like when my mother ironed clothes. The pilot mumbled something, and twice he emitted a scream. When a terrible, hot odor reached me, I dropped to my knees and retched. Mr. Girandole sat on the rock and watched me with a look of sympathy.
By the time Grandmother had finished her awful surgery, she had scorched R —— in some places and sewn him up in others. He was horribly pale, but his blood was no longer trickling into the earth. For the moment, at least, he was still breathing. Grandmother cut clean, dry rags into bandages with the shears and used the string to bind them around R ——’s leg, shoulder, side, and neck. We cleaned our hands again. Mr. Girandole went to extinguish his fire and to wash the other rags and canvas in the stream.
As we collected our gear and waited for him to get back, I repeated my question about Mr. Girandole.
“He’s a faun,” Grandmother said. “And he’s very old—much older than me.”
I stared at her. “But he looks—”
“He’s looked the same since I met him, when I was seven.”
“You met him here, didn’t you—in the sacred woods?”
She nodded. “He’s the last of his kind. Or at least, the last around here.”
“If they don’t get old, how can that be?”
“The other fauns went away, as I understand it. Girandole fell in love with a human woman. He left the forest to live with her. But she grew old and died. When he came back to the grove, his people had gone.”
I watched the pilot breathing, his chest rising and falling. More planes droned past—a patrol of ours, I thought, though they were far away. “So, Mr. Girandole lives alone here in the woods?”
“Yes. His home is high on the mountain, in the steep places where no one ever goes, in a cave. He’s always stayed around here, because he has no place to go in the world of humankind. I think he’s always hoping his people will come back, or that he can find a way to rejoin them. He’s from Faery, the other world. He misses it.”
The story was very sad. I got the impression Grandmother was telling me these things partly to take my mind off all the stitching and cauterizing. But now I was thinking of the statues in the grove—of dragons and giants, of the mer-people under the sea. I’d always wanted these things to exist outside of fairy tales. A part of me had always believed that they must, somewhere, even if it were in a world humans couldn’t reach. But if fauns could live—here in our own country . . . “Are the others real?” I asked, so full of hope that it hurt my chest. “All the creatures from stories?”
Grandmother gazed at me, looking tired, resting her chin on the head of her walking-stick. “You’ve seen all the ones I’ve seen. Maybe they all were here once. The stories had to come from somewhere. I think Girandole is the last.”
Sadness settled on me like a weight. “They’ve gone back to Faery? Why?”
She shrugged. “Too many of us, I expect. The world is too noisy for them now.”
I hoped she was wrong. I wanted desperately for there to be others.
“Don’t be so gloomy,” Grandmother said. “Think of it: yesterday, you never thought you’d meet a faun.”
“Where there’s one,” I said, “there might be more!”
“That’s an expression about snakes,” she said.
Mr. Girandole returned. I watched him come, swinging along with what seemed a cheerful aspect, the boots now back on his feet. I supposed the boots must be padded with wads of cloth in the toes and heels—for if ordinary feet would not fit Cinderella’s slipper, the reverse situation must also be true.
“I spread the wet things out in the sun to dry,” he reported. “I’ll bring them and these tools back to you after dark tonight.”
I saw his reasoning: it would be best if no one saw Grandmother and me coming out of the woods with an armload of strange gear. I knew how the villagers loved to gossip. Only a narrow meadow and the belt of arbors separated Grandmother’s back garden from the forest’s edge.
Grandmother took his hand. “Thank you for all your help, Girandole. You are always so kind.”
He bowed his head in a courtly way. There was worry in his lean face. “You should go now. Tread very carefully, M ——. If anyone finds this man, alive or otherwise, it will be clear he didn’t stitch himself up.”
“We’ll be careful,” Grandmother said. She frowned into the treetops. “Can nothing be done about that parachute?”
Mr. Girandole took off his hat for the first time and ran his long, dark fingers through his hair. I felt my eyes widen at the sight of two small nubs of horn on his forehead, nearly hidden by his matted locks. “A rock tied to a rope, I suppose,” he said. “If I could snag some of the cords, I could pull one way and another until it all came down.”
Grandmother nodded. “I have some clothesline rope that ought to be long enough. I’ll give it to you tonight. There’s nothing more we can do for . . . R —— here . . . until he decides whether he’s going to live another day.”
Mr. Girandole agreed. “I’ll bring a blanket and cover him. I don’t smell any rain coming.”
Leaning on her stick, Grandmother turned to go, but Mr. Girandole cleared his throat. “There’s . . . also the matter of his weapon.”
I looked toward the gun, hidden in the pile of rocks.
“Out of sight, out of mind!” said Grandmother, laughing at herself for forgetting it. She narrowed her eyes, thinking. “It doesn’t belong here. We’ll take it out of the forest.”
“I could take it to my cave,” Mr. Girandole offered. “Or bury it somewhere high on the mountain.”
“No. If R —— dies, he won’t be needing it. If he lives, he’ll want it back, and you’ll never hear the end of it. We’ll carry it beyond any retrieving. I know a good way.” So, Grandmother put the heavy black gun into her carpet bag, and we took our leave.
Glancing back, I saw Mr. Girandole, his coat folded over his arm, pacing slowly around our patient.
* * * *
We arrived home just as the noon whistle sounded from the fish cannery. If you listened carefully as it ended, you could hear its echo from the cliffs. First, we pumped up water from the well in the summer kitchen and washed our hands and faces thoroughly. Then Grandmother flxed us a lunch of bread and honey, sardines, cheese, fruit, and tea. I watched her strong hands peeling a pear, and I remembered with a shudder the sight of those hands sewing skin. When we’d washed the dishes, she went to her room for a nap.
I saw that the pan under the ice box was nearly full from the melting ice block, so I carried it out and dumped it according to the rotation pattern. Today, it was the third pear tree’s turn for a drink. Flowers and vegetables shouldn’t be watered in the heat of the day. When I’d replaced the pan, I sat on a bench in the sun and watched butterflies flit in the germander. I felt wrung out, like one of the rags.
Until three months before, Grandmother had been only a name, a photo in a round frame on the mantel. She was my father’s mother, and I don’t think she and my mother liked each other much; at least, we never visited her as a family. In my childhood, I knew Grandmother wrote letters to my papa sometimes, and he wrote back. He’d asked me now and then for some of my drawings to send her. Papa used to tell me stories of growing up in the village, where time hardly seemed to pass at all, and every arbor, every garden gate, might be the doorway to a magical world. Seeing the place for myself, I thought so too. Grandfather had been alive then, when my father lived here.
I yearned for a better look at the sacred woods. For now, my eyes were heavy, too; exhaustion swept over me. Curling up on the bench, I was soon fast asleep.
* * * *
I awoke to the growl of a plane.
Springing upright, I blinked into the thick, hot light of late afternoon. Golden sun slanted through the garden, and the shadows under trees and bushes were dark. My head had the sluggish feeling that comes when consciousness has been far away for a long time. My face was sore from the bench on one side and sunburned on the other.
There was not one plane but two. They were sleek, angular fighters of our side, from the airfield to the north. Very low, they roared over the village in repeated loops and buzzed up the mountain, making pass after pass.
Grandmother came out of the cottage, her hair in disarray. “They’ve seen the parachute,” she said.
A chill passed through me. “I can run fast,” I said. “I’ll go and warn Mr. Girandole.”
“No.” She watched the planes, the sun gleaming on their wings and canopies. “They’ve warned him themselves, with their noise. If you go up there, you’ll run into a lot of soldiers. It’s the hardest thing, but what we have to do is wait and see what happens.”
I couldn’t stand it. “But they’ll catch R ——! Mr. Girandole will be too scared. He won’t know what to do.”
Grandmother gave a short laugh. “Don’t go counting on that. He’s only timid when there’s someone nearby to be brave for him. Left to his own devices, he does just fine.”
My heart was pounding. “We’ve got to do something.”
“Let’s see if there are any ripe tomatoes,” Grandmother said.
* * * *
That was the longest evening I had spent in my life. I could focus on nothing but the sounds of planes, of cars and trucks in the street, and the snatches of voices that passed. We heard two large trucks roll by, but they were gone before either of us reached a window.
About an hour before sundown, an Army truck drove slowly through the streets. Soldiers with rifles on their shoulders sat in the open bed, and their commanding officer clung to the rear of the cab, using a megaphone to repeat an announcement over and over:
“AN ENEMY SOLDIER IS SUSPECTED IN THE AREA, THE PILOT OF THE CRASHED PLANE. REPORT ANY STRANGERS TO THE POLICE IMMEDIATELY. A GENERAL CURFEW WILL BE IN EFFECT BETWEEN THE HOURS OF 8 P.M. AND 6 A.M. UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. REMAIN INDOORS AT NIGHT WITH WINDOWS AND DOORS SECURED.”
I looked bleakly at Grandmother, but the announcement seemed to have cheered her up. “You see?” she said. “They’ve been to the forest already and found the parachute but not the man. They’re up against a faun in his own woods.”
Still, it worried me when supper was over, sunset came and went, and the moon rose, but still Mr. Girandole made no appearance. I pictured him wringing his hands in the dark. R —— was probably dead, and Mr. Girandole didn’t know how to break the news to us. Or might the soldiers have caught Mr. Girandole? Might they have shot him? But we’d heard no gunshots; I supposed a gunshot could be heard a long way off in the quiet woods.
After nightfall, there were no more planes, and the only traffic was a truck passing every hour or so. Grandmother worked on stitching a quilt. “He may not come tonight,” she said. “The soldiers are likely watching the open field, and the moon is bright.”
So, I pulled my feet up onto a high-backed chair near the same lamp and tried to read Arabian Nights, but I couldn’t concentrate. I kept reading and re-reading the same line.
“When your mind’s too restless to think,” Grandmother said, “move your hands.”
Getting out my sketchbook, pencil, and eraser, I drew a picture of the grove of the monsters as I remembered it, with the winged beast snarling over the bushes, and faces peering through the vines near and far.
“You’d better not draw or write anything about Girandole or R ——,” Grandmother said. “Not in your book there, and not in your letters.”
I nodded. “I’m only drawing the monsters.”
But I found myself unable to remember the details. My lines on paper did no better than words at framing the secrets of the shadowy wood. A silence passed in which I drew and erased, brushing away the eraser’s gray crumbs, my fingers smudged with pencil lead.
Suddenly, as if we were still in the midst of our morning’s conversation, Grandmother began to speak. The things she told me were personal, and I marveled that she was trusting me with so much and talking to me in the same tone she used with adults. As I look back on it, I think she’d been testing me that day—or perhaps for many days—and I’d finally passed.
“Girandole’s my best friend.” She put down her quilting and sighed. “You ought to know this, because someday you’ll wonder about it, and I won’t be around to tell you. First, he was like an uncle or a father to me. As I got older, he was like a brother, but even more than that . . . When I grew up, he insisted I find a man to marry—one of my own kind, who could grow old with me. He didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past, you see. So, all the while I was with your grandfather, I didn’t go to the woods, and Girandole didn’t come out. I didn’t see him for more than thirty years, but I knew he was watching me sometimes, hidden among the hedges near the garden. He wanted me to have a normal life, but at the same time it broke his heart—he loved me, you know, even though he tried not to. The heart is uncontrollable.”
I had no idea what to say. At last I managed, “Did you love him, too?”
She smiled faintly and seemed to fix her gaze far beyond the cottage walls. “Yes. I did, and I do.” Her eyes found me again. “But I’m an old woman, and he’s a faun. What that means for us is friendship. And the knowledge that there’s more to the larger story of things . . . much more, beyond the borders of this world—beyond the walls of time.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant. But since she seemed to be in an answer-giving mood, I asked, “Did the fauns carve the statues?”
“No. The monsters in the grove were commissioned by a nobleman—a duke—nearly four hundred years ago. It took many years as the garden grew, piece by piece—his life-long project. He employed the finest sculptors in the land, the ones whose work is still to be seen in the cathedrals.”
“Why did he make them?”
The kettle boiled, and Grandmother laid aside her quilting to brew a pot of tea. “No one knows for sure, though there is more than one version of the story. Some say the garden was a tribute to the duke’s beloved wife, a woman named G ——. But some say she took one look at it and fell down dead with fright. Not very long after she died, the duke simply vanished. No one knows what became of him. The garden was left abandoned, and in time, it was overgrown by the woods. Even the duke’s castle up on the mountain is gone now; not so much as a foundation remains. I read what I could about it all years ago in the national library, on a trip to the capital. You won’t hear many facts around here.”
I wasn’t happy with my drawing: the winged creature’s mouth wasn’t right. Erasing it, I tried yet again.
“People talk as if the monsters were real,” I said. “Do they know they’re only statues?”
“A few of the brave ones have been up there to see them—enough to keep people reminded that there are monsters. There’s always been superstition about the place—the duke wasn’t around to defend himself after he vanished, and there were all the ugly rumors of what might have gone on in the garden.” Grandmother sighed and listened as a truck motored past.
“And now this—” She tipped her head vaguely toward the truck sound. “These times, and the world all upside down. The current regime forbids any celebration of our glorious past in art or music or books. We’re not supposed to have spirits; we’re supposed to be good children and obey. For most people, it’s easier to be afraid of monsters that are safely off in the woods.” She smirked. “The haunted woods.”
“They call it haunted; you call it sacred.”
Grandmother chuckled, placing a cup of tea on a saucer beside me. “When your father took you to the Great Cathedral, how did you feel? Frightened, or full of holy awe?”
I thought of the gargoyles, the soaring stained glass and colored light . . . the vast space and dim heights . . . the joyous and flendish and suffering faces, carved in high places and in low, in brightness and shadow. “Both,” I answered.
“There you are, then. Haunted and sacred. Maybe they want to mean the same thing, but neither word is big enough.”
I darkened my monster’s eyes and began adding the teeth. “Did Papa go to the grove?”
“Of course he did, though he learned not to speak of it in front of your grandfather. The forest was forbidden, even then. Funny . . . I always felt as if the place were calling me.”
I nodded, tapping my pencil against my lips, planning how I would ask my father about his time in the garden—what he thought of it, and what he did there. Setting aside my sketchbook, I got out letter paper, but Grandmother frowned.
“You should wait a few days, until things settle down,” she said. “Unless you want your letter opened and read by the Army right there in the post office.”
I didn’t want that, so I put the paper back in its box.
When the hour grew late, Grandmother announced that she intended to sleep on the couch, in case Mr. Girandole rapped on the door too lightly to be heard from the bedroom. I joined her in the vigil, dragging my mattress and bedding out of my room and arranging them on the floor before the wood stove.
“Don’t worry,” Grandmother told me when she blew out the oil lamp. “We’ve done what we can for now.” She seemed to take her own advice; in minutes, she was softly snoring.
I lay awake for a long time in the glow of the embers behind the stove’s grill, listening to the frogs and crickets, and to the rustle of leaves when the wind picked up.
At last I slept, but my dreams were a repeat of the day: rags soaked in blood, planes flying low, trucks full of soldiers . . . and the grove of monsters. In my dream, the monsters blinked and shifted when I wasn’t looking directly at them, and I could hear them whispering together in the far parts of the garden, the parts I couldn’t see behind the leaves.
* * * *
In the morning, Grandmother bustled and clattered, going to and from the summer kitchen by the side door, complaining about how the couch had given her a stiff back.
“It’s a fine morning,” she said. “Let’s have breakfast at the garden table. Then we’ll go on a spy mission to the market and hear what we can hear.”
The ideas of breakfast and market made me think. “What if R —— wakes up and is hungry?” I asked. “He’ll need food and water.”
“Girandole will take care of him, if R —— is alive. You mustn’t get your hopes up about that. But even if he’s alive, I doubt he’ll be in any condition to eat yet.”
Grandmother had made it a point to tell me the names of everyone she knew—and she seemed to know the whole village. She was forever introducing me to people, and we could rarely walk down the street without running into someone who wanted to stand and talk.
Today, the village buzzed with nervous tension and a wild excitement that no one would have admitted to. A single enemy lurking somewhere, possibly injured, and most likely trying to stay hidden, was just dangerous enough to be thrilling without presenting a cause for real alarm. In the bakery, Mrs. P —— said that she’d discovered her garden gate inexplicably unlatched, and the large footprint of a man’s shoe in her onion patch. Mrs. C —— had heard someone trudge past her bedroom window at half past three this morning, but as the nearest telephone was at the corner grocer’s, she’d had no way of notifying the police. Mrs. D —— could afford me no more than a beaming glance, and none of the usual exclamations. She was eager to show us all the stamped-out end of a cigarette she’d found in her lane—a slender, exotic sort of cigarette that had most definitely not come from anywhere around here. She had folded it in paper and was on her way to deliver it to the police.
“What about you, M ——” she asked my grandmother. “The woods practically touch your back fence. Did you see or hear anything?”
Several pairs of wide eyes turned toward Grandmother, who held the silvery baker’s tongs and had just put a fig-loaf into the shopping basket. “Now that you mention it, there was something,” she said, “though I dismissed it as my imagination at the time.”
I peered at her with as much interest as everyone else.
“Around midnight I woke up,” Grandmother said, her voice just above a whisper. “I’m not sure why, since I usually sleep like the Lord in the back of the boat. I think it was too quiet. There was a small sound which I thought was the cottage settling—old houses do that, you know. But as I remember it now, it could only have been the sound of someone trying the front door.”
There was a chorus of gasps and exclamations.
Grandmother accepted Mrs. C ——’s praise for keeping her door locked and Mrs. P ——’s adjuration to be extremely careful, and she smiled amiably at what looked like a glance of envy from Mrs. D ——.
When Grandmother had swept out of the bakery and I’d made sure no one could hear us, I said, “Isn’t lying a sin?”
“Yes,” she answered soberly. “But that wasn’t a lie. That was camouflage.”
An Army truck was parked outside the police office, and a group of four soldiers stood in front of the building, chatting and smoking. My chest fluttered whenever I saw the uniforms—every single time, for the first instant, I expected to see my father among the soldiers. But he wasn’t here. These were men I didn’t know. Two of them tipped their cloth hats to Grandmother as we passed.
We completed our grocery shopping, then paid the electric bill. Grandmother wasn’t fond of electricity, since it didn’t come in tanks like the lamp fuel or in blocks like the ice, and no one delivered it in a truck; she thought it was a mighty suspicious thing to be paying for. She’d allowed the workmen to hook it up, she said, only so that she could listen to the radio.
Our morning’s investigation confirmed, from snatches of conversation here and there, what we already knew: that patrols of soldiers had been combing the forest but had apparently found nothing except the parachute—if they’d found the pilot, they wouldn’t still be searching.
As we came out of the public works building, Mrs. D —— passed us on the sidewalk, on her way into the grocery store. I saw that she still held the folded paper containing the dubious cigarette from her lane. She’d come right past the police office but had apparently not stopped in there yet.
Grandmother looked sidelong at me. “Ignorance multiplies itself better than yeast. If we could make bread out of rumors, no one in the world would go hungry.”
For the rest of the way home, we talked little but kept our eyes open. In front of the barber shop, one soldier was speaking into the handset of a portable radio strapped to another soldier’s back. There was so much code in what he said that we couldn’t make sense of it, but his tone sounded weary and annoyed. A military launch chugged through the harbor, and an Army staff car was parked outside the three-story inn. Grandmother deliberately crossed the street so that we could walk past the wide glass windows of the inn’s dining room and peer inside. I glimpsed only a blur of reflections, dark spaces, and lamplight, but Grandmother murmured, when we’d turned the corner to climb Bridge Street, “That was the major, all right.”
“At the inn?”
“Mm. From the garrison.”
“Do you know him?” I asked.
“Not personally, but I know his face.” Grandmother turned a critical eye on a poorly weeded herb garden to our left. “He is not the sort of man your grandfather would have liked.”
I expected her to say more and was puzzling over why she’d brought Grandfather into it, but she stood still, her attention now on a group of five soldiers tramping down out of the arbors.
They’d clearly come from the woods, their shirts dark with sweat, their trousers covered with burrs and prickle-seeds. In no particular hurry, they had nearly made it to the road when they seemed to think better of it, and all flopped down in the shade.
“Nothing to report,” said Grandmother under her breath, walking again.
I watched a moment longer as the men leaned rifles on a fence, pulled off hats, and poured water over their heads. One had a receding hairline, and aside from his hair’s color, he looked rather like our patient, R ——. Yet this man and R —— were enemies. Another man, who perhaps looked like them both, had shot down R ——’s plane. There were trucks full of men, ships carrying them on the seas, squadrons of planes with more men inside, and all together they made up the war. And my father was somewhere among them.
This was Papa’s second war: he’d had to fight in one when he was young, and now he had to fight in this one. He’d been summoned back into service nearly four years ago, and had been home only twice in that time; already I had trouble recalling the exact sound of his voice. I would stare at his photo and re-read his letters, striving to recapture a clear echo of his laugh. I wondered if he was patrolling today, joking with his fellow soldiers, pulling burrs out of his trousers, and drinking warm water from his canteen. I prayed he would never be wounded like R ——. Please, God, keep him safe. I wished a letter from him would come.
Grandmother’s next-door neighbor on the side toward the village center was a fearsome old woman named Mrs. F ——. That’s what Grandmother called her, never her first name. Mrs. F —— was white-haired, as tall and hard as a dead tree bleached by the sun. Her garden was a dark cavern, overrun by juniper and laurel and myrtle, covered in vines, and she seemed not to care for flowers. When Grandmother had first introduced us, Mrs. F —— glared at me from her wrinkled face, and she had not spoken a word to me since. Every time I passed in front of her house alone, I hurried; when I was in our back garden, I was glad for the stone wall between the properties and Mrs. F ——’s high hedge immediately on the wall’s other side. Once, though, late in the afternoon, I’d been reading in my sanctuary beneath the fuchsia, and feeling an uneasy prickle in my scalp, I’d looked up. Mrs. F —— had been standing at a side window beneath her gable, staring down at me. I’d given a timid wave to be polite, but she had not returned it. She’d continued to watch me, motionless. I’d closed my book and gone indoors.
As Grandmother and I crossed in front of Mrs. F ——’s gate, nearly home, I saw Mrs. F —— crouching beneath a cypress tree, clipping the vines. Grandmother said a bright hello.
“What’s the news?” asked Mrs. F ——, not looking at me.
“Everyone’s got a story,” said Grandmother. “No one knows anything.”
Mrs. F —— gave a bark that might have been a laugh and went on with her trimming.
When we were inside with the door shut, I asked, “Why doesn’t she like me?”
“She doesn’t dislike you,” Grandmother said. “Her own boys were hellions, and I suppose she suspects any child of being the same.”
The ice man had been by on his twice-weekly rounds: a fresh chunk sat in the top compartment of the ice box, which was a boon to the milk and cheese. Grandmother had me take down the diamond-shaped ice card from its hook in the front window—a device that fascinated me, since it looked like something a magician would use in a trick. It had a number at each point; the number you turned upright told the ice man how heavy a chunk of ice to bring. I spun it in my hands, watching the numbers go around, always one right-side up.
We had a light, early lunch. Then Grandmother said, “After I stretch out for a bit, I think we’d better have a look for ourselves up in the forest.”
I sprang up straight in my chair. “Can we do that?”
“There’s no curfew in the afternoon, and I’ve heard of no restrictions on where one can go—well,” she added after a moment’s thought, “there’s some foolish new law about trespassing among ruins, I think. But ruins are as much a part of our land as the trees and the rocks. May as well order us not to walk around on our feet!”
“What if the soldiers see us?”
“We’ll be gathering wood for the stove. We’ll take along the hatchet.”
So, we did precisely that: Grandmother took a nap, and I dozed again on the garden bench—the one beneath the camphor tree, protected from Mrs. F ——’s windows. It was still early in the afternoon when I lifted down the hand-axe from its pegs and Grandmother picked up the binding cords from the wood bin. She poured some milk into a jug with a stopper and packed it, along with a tin of crackers, some fruit, and a wedge of cheese into her carpet bag.
I glanced at the bag. “Did you take out his gun?”
Grandmother nodded. “It’s hidden in my room. Getting rid of it may be our mission tomorrow, if the weather’s good.”
We paused at the edge of the sloping meadow to look around. The grasses waved in a slight, wandering breeze. Like a green cliff, the forest eaves rolled away in both directions, the hollows between limbs full of purple shadows, windows of twilight at midday. I loved this boundary, where the bright world met one full of secrets.
“You live in the best place on Earth,” I told Grandmother.
She laughed, not in a scornful way, and leaned on her stick, slowly studying the distance. A woodpecker knocked somewhere. Off to our right, a vine-tender whistled a tune.
“If there are soldiers here,” said Grandmother quietly, “they’re under one of the arbors, watching with binoculars.” She rested on a bench, examining the grapes on the lattice over our heads. The crop was still tiny, hard, and green, but Grandmother said they would ripen well this year.
“I can carry the bag,” I said.
Grandmother peered at me with one of her appraising looks that ended in the hint of a smile. “You’re a good boy,” she said, and handed the bag over.
I smiled then, knowing that praise from Grandmother didn’t come lightly. “Was Papa like me when he was my age?”
We left the arbors and crossed the meadow then. If any soldiers saw us, they issued no challenge. To give credibility to our wood-gathering ruse, we picked up a few sticks where the trees began. When the forest’s emerald shadows had closed over us, I asked Grandmother about something else I’d heard earlier in the summer, from two elderly men inside the smoky open window of the pipe lounge while I waited for Grandmother outside the apothecary’s—about dancing fires on the mountainside at night, music among the trees, and something called a “procession of souls.”
“There’s an old belief,” she said, “that the souls of those who die throughout the year don’t go to Heaven one by one; on Midsummer’s Eve, they all go together, in a procession.”
“Is Heaven that way—on the mountain, or beyond it?”
“That’s the direction I’d head if I were looking.”
I didn’t ask any further questions, because we both wanted to watch and listen. Birds sang, insects hummed, and we met no patrolling soldiers. Wildflowers shone like droplets of cream and butter and honey in patches of sunlight; some clustered in deep places where the shade was blue and cool. The village sounds grew distant: a carpenter’s hammer, a few motors, the wallop of someone beating a rug. Then once more, we passed into the heart of silence, where the trees stood huge and dark. Shadowed by the thick canopy, the glens became caverns of leaf, trunk, stone, and mossy earth.
Grandmother pointed with her stave at places where boots had trampled the moss and smashed some of the white toadstools. She shook her head gravely.
We came at last to the parachute. R —— was gone, and we were alone in the glade. The soldiers had not bothered to drag the chute down; it still hung in tangles, the soft earth beneath it crisscrossed with boot tracks. The mound we’d made for R —— to fall into had been flattened out; I supposed Mr. Girandole had scattered it to make our assistance less obvious. I saw no traces of blood. But if one looked, our excavations among the leaf-beds were plain to see.
I picked up the mashed remains of two cigarettes, and Grandmother snickered. “You want to take them to Mrs. D ——” I didn’t, choosing to bury them instead under a handful of soil.
We found nothing of interest. After a few moments, Grandmother led the way toward the grove of monsters. Without asking, I knew we would go there. We descended the long slope where sunlight fell in occasional golden shafts.
As my gaze settled on one such circle of light, I halted and stared. The sun illuminated the base of a tree with a riot of twisting, overlapping roots. For a moment, I thought I saw a village there, all in miniature among the ferns in the blaze of light: houses of stacked pebbles with mossy roofs; bridges of bark; towers and tiers and petal banners; and galleries stretching into the dim caves beneath the roots. But when I looked closer, I saw that all was merely the forest floor. Its myriad colors and textures had fooled my eyes. A dragonfly like a long green needle whirred lazily across the sun-patch.
Blinking, I hurried to catch up with Grandmother.
“I found the grove from its other side when I was a girl,” she said quietly, “so this has always seemed like the back door to me. But the real front gate is in those bushes down there”—she pointed south, toward the village—“at the bottom of the hollow that holds it all.”
As we threaded through the bushes, I stretched to my full height, trying to catch sight again of the gray dragon. Soon enough, I saw it, still rearing and snarling, its mouth open wide. My heart raced with the same thrill as when my parents would take me to the carnival or a picture show.
I could see the top of a broad arch to the south, which must be the main entrance Grandmother had meant. Trees stood here and there like colossal pillars, roofing the garden over with their impenetrable crowns. Grandmother stopped and put both hands on the head of her stick, listening. I kept still, giving her the chance to hear anything the grove might tell her. But I couldn’t help easing closer to see the dragon.
Dense bushes had grown around him as high as his shoulders. This green tangle extended to both sides, a mass of thorny branches that choked much of the ravine. Peering through thorns and a spider web, I examined the dragon’s clawed feet and the pedestal they gripped. Then I noticed why the beast was roaring and unfurling his wings: buried in the undergrowth around him, at least three dogs were attacking him. Carved with the same skill, they bared their fangs, surrounding the monster, one preparing to lunge. It was hard to contain my excitement and curiosity for what might lie hidden just beyond sight in the bushes.
To our left stood a second, smaller arch, about the size through which a tall man could walk without stooping. Vines had cloaked it, but faces were visible all up and down its span, some bearded, some beautiful, some monstrous. They peered out from among leaves and blossoms like spirits of the forest.
This arch had escaped the encroaching bushes. Grandmother led me beneath it, and we passed into a clearing like a vast cavern of viridian light. Randomly columned by trees, the clearing spread from one steep wall of the ravine to the other. To the right I saw again the sea serpent, its long neck rising from the same brake of bushes that engulfed the dragon. On the left, near at hand, sat a crowned, bearded man on a throne. He held a gigantic fork, both weapon and scepter. “That’s Neptune,” said Grandmother. “God of the sea. And I think that’s Heracles.” She pointed at the figure towering over the bushes beyond the sea serpent, near the hollow’s eastern wall—a muscular man with short, curling hair and a mighty club. “I know I’m mixing my Greek and Roman mythology,” she added. “But this looks more like a Neptune than a Poseidon, doesn’t it? And ‘Hercules’ just doesn’t seem to fit that one.”
“Was Heracles that big?” I asked, trying to remember what I’d heard of Heracles—some hero or warrior of long ago.
“Probably not,” Grandmother said. “Maybe it’s just some giant. But he looks like Heracles to me. If he were holding up the sky, I’d say Atlas . . .”
In the half-light of the hidden garden, moss lay thick, and more strange figures loomed near and far. The lack of breeze combined with the age of the statues to give me the sense that time did not pass here.
Before us and a little to the right, across a mostly unobstructed expanse of forest floor, rose the tower that leaned at a disturbing angle. Nearer to us was the sculpture of a wild boar with real vines growing over his back. A large, square basin had once contained a pool or fountain but now held only a brackish accumulation of rain-water, leaves, and fallen branches. Four identical stone women stood delicately poised, one on each corner of the basin’s rim. Each woman bore a water-jar on her hip, a slender arm curled around it. None wore a stitch of clothing, and I looked quickly away. When Grandmother moved ahead of me, I took a second, longer glance.
“That’s really awful,” she said, and I jumped, feeling my face begin to burn.
But Grandmother was talking about the tower. “For the life of me, I can’t fathom why anyone would build it that way. It makes me dizzy just to look at it, and if I go inside, I feel ill.”
“A mystery,” said a voice, and I barely held back a yelp.
It was Mr. Girandole, his face in a narrow window on the tower’s upper story. Grinning, he leaned out with his elbows on the sill. He still wore the floppy brown hat, but now his shirt was a dusky blue. “Whatever mischief the old duke was up to when he built it,” Mr. Girandole said, “it’s come in handy.”
“So, there you are.” Grandmother looked up with her typical restrained smile—a smile that seemed to look beyond the reason for smiling to the next ache or nuisance or grief, and still farther beyond that—a long telescope of foresight. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“Very well, thank you, though there have been some anxieties.”
“And that one?” Grandmother lowered her voice further.
“Alive.” Mr. Girandole looked over his shoulder once, into the tower’s interior. “But not awake yet. He’s had water and tea, and a sip or two of broth, but he’s burning with fever. I think he dreams dreams.”
Grandmother laughed. “Of course he does, in that catastrophe of a house. It would drive anyone mad. If he lives, he’s likely to come out of there crawling on all fours and eating straw.”
For all her brusqueness, I thought Grandmother sounded happy. I studied the building and decided it wasn’t a tower at all, though its height gave that impression. It seemed to have only two stories, if the windows were any indication, though its flat roof had a crenellated parapet, like a castle. The rooms—of which there could conceivably be only two—must be about the size of my own bedroom in Grandmother’s cottage, but they must have very high ceilings.
“He’s in here,” said Mr. Girandole, though we’d gathered that. “Do you want to come up and see him?”
“No, you come out here,” Grandmother answered. “I know what a delirious man looks like.”
Mr. Girandole disappeared from the window, and Grandmother started up a flight of weathered stone steps that led to a terrace at the foot of the leaning house. The terrace itself was level, not leaning. There was a matching stairway at its other end, and in the spirit of adventure, I took that one. I paused before climbing to peer across the glade at the statue of a mighty elephant who held an armored warrior in his trunk, frozen in the act of dashing the man to the ground—the violence of the scene gave me a chill. Beyond the elephant a stone tortoise, broad as a table, appeared to creep from the bushes.
I hurried up to the terrace, where weeds grew in the cracks between flagstones. Grandmother mounted from the other side, grunting as she labored up the stairs. Stone benches lined the platform along every side. She chose one against the building, where she could lean back against its wall and face outward. The terrace had a mossy railing with ornamental pilasters and seven planting urns, spaced at regular intervals. Each urn now held a thicket of natural growth, leaves and vines spilling from its rim and along the railing—like pots of forest that had boiled over.
Mr. Girandole emerged from a doorway in the tower’s side and joined us. He wore no shoes, and his hoofs clicked on the stones. When he settled himself on the western bench, above the stairway Grandmother had ascended, I saw beyond his shoulder the desolate fountain of the four unclothed women.
I perched beside Grandmother. Between our feet and Mr. Girandole’s, a tiny brown lizard skittered for cover. I sprang up and followed it to see where it would go. Reaching the platform’s back edge, past the corner of the house where the open doorway yawned, the lizard raced over the brink and straight down the block wall to the ground, not caring that the stone beneath its twiggy feet was vertical. I lost sight of it then.
Raising my eyes, I found myself facing another great stand of matted bushes and close-set trees, which blocked another large swath of the garden behind the leaning house. But another archway led onward in a gap, as strangely clear of undergrowth as the one through which we’d come.
Then I saw, in a patch of such deep shade that I’d missed it at first, a statue stained black with moisture or mold. It was the image of an angel, but not the sort I’d ever seen in a church. This angel’s long hair and robes blew back in what seemed a fierce wind. The face made me draw a frightened breath, for its mouth was a line of unyielding purpose, and its eyes seemed colder and darker than the stone of which they were carved. In one hand the angel held a ring of keys, and in the other a chain, which looped down to cross and re-cross the square base on which the angel stood—as if the chains held that base bound against the earth.
I backed away and returned quickly to the bench.
“So, you heard those planes,” Grandmother said, “and knew they’d seen the parachute.”
Mr. Girandole nodded. “It was too far to take the man to my cave—too hard on him, even if I could have managed it; so I brought him here. Had to drag him most of the way on my coat, then sweep up the worst of the drag-marks.”
“Resourceful,” said Grandmother. “And clever thinking, I’m sure; though I doubt it did him much good to be dragged up all these steps.”
Mr. Girandole nodded ruefully. “I was as gentle as possible.”
“But didn’t the soldiers come here, too?” I asked.
“Yes, they came,” he said. “They gawked at the monsters, prodded the bushes, and inspected this listing house. But what I’d hoped came to pass.”
Grandmother had a knowing gleam in her eye.
“What came to pass?” I asked, looking up at the colorless wall. Two windows gaped without glass or shutter, one above the other.
Mr. Girandole bent close and spoke behind his hand. “They didn’t find the secret space, where the man and I were hiding.”
I know my eyes brightened at the mention of a secret space. “Can I see it?”
“Yes,” said Grandmother, pulling me back into my seat, “he’ll show you presently.” She waited for Mr. Girandole to continue his story.
“Then I collected the tools and washed the canvas in the stream, as I promised. I knew it would take the soldiers time to get here, so I worked deliberately. I smoothed out the mound we made, brought water here in the bucket, and washed the blood from these steps.”
“He was still bleeding?” asked Grandmother.
“No, not really. I think it was from his clothes, and my poor coat, too. I fear it may be time for a new one.”
“I expect so,” said Grandmother, “when the excitement dies down.”
“Yes, yes, there’s no hurry.”
It occurred to me then that Mr. Girandole must depend on my grandmother for things such as clothes; he couldn’t walk into the village on those back-bending legs of his and shop for his own. But Grandmother, I supposed, could buy second-hand men’s clothing “for the buttons” or “for quilting.”
How lonely Mr. Girandole’s life must be, I thought. He had no person to talk to but Grandmother; and for the more than thirty years of her marriage, he’d had no one at all. But maybe time passed differently for ageless fauns. Or maybe here in the sacred woods where time itself seemed an unproven fancy, the waiting had not been so bad.
I thought of my own two friends from home and imagined the fun we might have exploring this garden. Our letters had tapered off. I’d tried to describe the village to them, but they’d never seen such a place, and now our lives were entirely different—theirs so full of chores and anxiety, and everything rationed. They had no time for letters. And now there was so much I couldn’t write about. I felt like the statues here, grown deep into a world of shade and silence, isolated and concealed. I hoped the letters from my parents wouldn’t stop coming.
There was a long, comfortable quietness then, during which we sat on our benches and gazed out at images the world had forgotten. Without getting up, I could see the pool, Neptune on his throne, our first archway, the boar, the dragon’s head, the sea serpent, the elephant, and of course Heracles, wading in the bushes like a man at the green sea’s edge.
“Not much has changed,” Grandmother said. At first, I didn’t know what she meant. “The bushes are wilder now. More paths are overgrown, and more is hidden.”
Mr. Girandole nodded, looking around thoughtfully, and I figured out they were remembering the garden as it had looked years and years ago, when Grandmother was my age.
“More is broken down and rounded off,” Mr. Girandole said. “The mermaid is the worse for wear, and the vine roots are not kind. It’s hard to hold back a forest that’s so eager and full of life, but I’ve done what I can to keep the main pathways open.”
Now I understood why the archways were free of vegetation. Mr. Girandole cared for the garden, trimming back the bushes when it became necessary. But he’d been discreet; he’d let the woods grow wild enough that no casual visitor would suspect the intervention of a caretaker. Branches were left to decay where they fell. The forest made its choices.
“Mermaid?” I asked, remembering that Grandmother had spoken of seeing a mermaid first of all the monsters.
“There’s another half to the garden,” Mr. Girandole said. “Behind you, through the second set of arches. That’s the upper part, and this is the lower.”
Grandmother was still thinking of the past. “This is where we met, isn’t it, Girandole? On this very terrace. You were reading a book.”
He chuckled. “One of those books I brought back with me from my foray into the world of the mortal folk. I still remember which one it was, and the page and the place I was reading when I looked up and there you were. I nearly jumped over the rail—no one else has ever sneaked up on me—no one else before or since. I wondered who this could be, to walk so silently!”
“Could never do it now,” Grandmother said. “You’d hear me huffing on the bottom step, and my joints creaking.”
“You were very small, but you gave me quite a fright.”
Grandmother blinked languidly. “I wasn’t afraid of you, and you had goat feet.”
“You’ve never been afraid, M ——. Not of your world, and not of the other.”
“What good does it do to be afraid?”
They had forgotten all about me, but I didn’t mind. It was good to hear them talking this way, their voices warm and soft and worn as old leather. I wandered to the rail and peered out across the bottom of the garden. In my head I tried to picture Grandmother as a young girl, gliding soundless across the carpets of leaves.
The deep glade was not in absolute shadow. The most delicate beams of sunlight pierced intermittently, making brilliant flecks no bigger than coins on the moss.
After another long silence, Grandmother suggested I go with Mr. Girandole to see how R —— was doing. “And we’d better take the brush knife home, at least. It will need sharpening.”
No mention was made of Mr. Girandole’s not having come to our house the previous night. We understood that for him to visit us would only risk danger for us all. And he had his hands full caring for the patient.
“Don’t forget to leave the provisions we brought,” Grandmother said, pointing to the carpet bag. “If R —— can’t eat them, then you can, Girandole.”
Mr. Girandole thanked her and stood, and I followed him to the doorway. It had no door and was forever open.
The coolness of ancient stone washed over us. Beyond the threshold lay exactly the sort of chamber I had expected: absolutely bare, its floor strewn with dead leaves. As Grandmother had said, the building’s tilt was much more disturbing inside. At once I felt a weariness in my ankles, since they had to bend to keep me upright. Dampness streaked the walls. Immediately to our left, a short stairway descended into a low annex like Grandmother’s summer kitchen. Ahead of us, an enclosed corner of the room housed a dim, winding stairway. Mr. Girandole led me upward. Enough light filtered in from above and below that I could make out the footing.
There seemed too few steps for the space they had to climb. To compensate, each step leaped high above the preceding one; this fact and the stairwell’s tilt made the going difficult. “Be careful not to fall,” Mr. Girandole said gently. “It’s rather more like a ladder than a stair.”
“A ladder on a sinking ship,” I answered.
I also noticed at once that the risers between steps all bore numbers, one number on each vertical plane. But the numbers were all out of order and made no sense that I could see. Four and nine gave way to two and eleven and fourteen: moreover, some of the numbers were carved upside down. “What do these mean?” I whispered.
Crawling up the stairs above me, Mr. Girandole shook his head. “Another mystery of the garden.”
Grandmother had said there was a riddle to this place, a puzzle. I began to understand that she meant more than just the gathering of fantastical statues and architecture.
The room at the top of the stairs was of the oddest construction I’d yet seen. Though the ceiling and walls closely resembled those of the chamber below, the floor had two levels. Its front half, on the side of the house above the terrace, was even with the threshold where we now stood. But between us and that farther section of floor lay a sunken half, into which a short stairway descended. It reminded me of a swimming pool with all the water drained. A narrow ledge, just wide enough to walk upon, ran from our feet in both directions to join the upper half of the floor. There across from us was the window through which Mr. Girandole had been looking out. I also noticed a stone ladder built right into the wall in the rear corner straight opposite our doorway; presumably, the closed hatchway at its top led to the roof.
Down in the sunken well was the pilot, R ——. Flat on his back, he occupied a pallet made from Grandmother’s canvas and a bed of grasses and leafy branches; I saw ends of these sticking out from beneath him. A stoneware cup, a tea kettle, and some rags were arrayed around him, along with our bucket and pan, the brush knife, and the unlit lantern. There was also a pile of rumpled blankets that must have come from Mr. Girandole’s house, and in a corner lay the long coat, now badly stained and tattered.
R ——’s face looked terrible—deathly pale with a slight bluish cast, and shiny with sweat. His breath came out in hisses and moans.
“You see, he’s quite bad off,” said Mr. Girandole, trotting down the steps into the well. With the equipment and blankets, there was scarcely room for him to crouch beside the man. “I don’t know whether to keep him covered or not. He kicks the blankets off.” He looked up at me with bleak eyes. “This anguish, this inevitable approach of Death,” he said, “it’s such a distressing part of the human world.”
I nodded, understanding enough of his big words to agree with him.
“But what’s secret about this room?” I asked. “Why didn’t the soldiers find you?”
“Ah. Watch this.” Mr. Girandole seemed glad for the distraction. He stooped and spread his hands on the wall of that lower space, the wall beneath the higher half of the floor.
I noticed now that the surface was pitted with hundreds of tiny, regular holes in rows, each hole about the size of a fingertip and connected to those surrounding it by faint grooves.
Finding the precise place he was seeking, Mr. Girandole stuck his thumb into one hole and his longest finger into another. I heard a loud, mechanical click, and the upper floor jerked, sliding by a fraction. Half of the floor was a moving slab!
Mr. Girandole grinned, reached up, and pulled it toward him, over his head. It rumbled, crossing the chamber, shutting Mr. Girandole and R —— into a hidden compartment, now completely gone from sight. Where the moving floor had been at first was a second well, a twin to the first, with another stairway leading down into it. To look out the window over the terrace now, a person would have to stand on the ribbon of ledge that remained there.
Mr. Girandole’s voice rose, muffled, through the stone. “You can walk across above us. This is still the solid floor.”
I did so, marveling at how well it fit in its new position, having perfectly concealed the first well to reveal the second. The stone ladder to the roof seemed more naturally placed now, rising above this floor rather than above a pit.
“It must be pitch-black for you down there,” I said.
“Yes. But I can find the latch again by feel.”
I couldn’t help smiling. It was such a nonsensical and delightful thing to build, like the entire leaning house. Was this whole house, then, meant to be nothing more than a magic trick-box? The sunken wells partly explained the odd height of the structure: it needed some extra space between the first and second stories.
On the floor of the newly opened well I saw an engraving that startled me. It was a giant face drawn by lines carved into the smooth stone. Roughly human, the face had round eyes and a gaping mouth, as if it were screaming. In a long arc above it was an inscription. I recognized our language but in a style so old I had trouble making out the words.
“What does this say?” I asked, loud enough for Mr. Girandole to hear.
“‘Reason departs,’” came his muted reply.
I repeated this to myself, puzzling over the meaning. “Is there a face like this in your half?” I asked.
“Yes. Here under R ——’s bed—exactly the same.”
I returned to the doorway. Mr. Girandole asked if I was clear, and then he rolled back the floor.
“How did you ever find the secret space?” I asked.
“It was long ago,” he said. “I knew there must be a compartment there—why else build the floor so strangely? And I guessed the holes meant something. It was just a matter of feeling inside them one by one. The fact that the trigger has two separate catches took me a while.”
Just then I heard the tap of Grandmother’s stick and her voice as she climbed the stairs behind me. She’d decided to come in after all.
“This place makes my head spin,” she complained. I got out of her way so she could clamber down into the well and see R —— for herself.
She changed nearly everything that Mr. Girandole had done, first moving every item on the floor to a different place, then poking and rearranging the pallet. She opened the patient’s shirt and washed him with a wet rag, muttering over the state of the water in the bucket but rejecting Mr. Girandole’s offer to go to the stream and get another bucketful.
I knew it was the house’s tilt that she truly disliked. It was making me queasy, too. Droplets seemed to fall at an angle from the squeezed cloth; the water rose nearly to the bucket’s rim on one side only.
Untying all the bandages, Grandmother dabbed carefully at the wounds and smeared them with something dark and oily from a bottle in her pocket. Then she made new bandages from more of the rags, bound them in place, and poured liquid from another bottle into R ——’s mouth.
He spluttered, gagged, and said something in his language but did not regain consciousness. I thought he looked marginally better after the bathing, but Grandmother wasn’t happy.
“He should be in the hospital,” she said.
“Unquestionably,” said Mr. Girandole.
“But we did what he wanted,” I reminded her. “He didn’t want a doctor.”
She sighed, wringing out the rag. “What will be will be.” Leaving one of the bottles with Mr. Girandole, she lined up the food and milk we’d brought and gave him more instructions than I could follow, let alone remember. But Mr. Girandole listened with solemn intensity and nodded when she’d finished.
“We’ll go home now,” she said to me. To Mr. Girandole, she added that we’d bring cloth soon to make some better bandages, and that if he needed help or advice, he should come to the cottage anyway. She also looked with concern at Mr. Girandole and asked if he was remembering to eat and sleep.
“As much as ever,” he told her.
“That’s not very reassuring. You don’t do enough of either.” Grandmother pressed his hand between hers, as I’d seen her do before. “This is good of you, Girandole. You have the hardest work.”
“What else have I got to do, M —— Leave it to me.” The corners of his eyes crinkled, and a look of great fondness passed between him and my grandmother.
She left the lantern and some matches, and we took the brush knife to bundle with our hatchet and firewood.
It was quite a chore for Grandmother to descend the stairway, but at last we safely reached the level ground and sat again on the terrace until our heads cleared. “If that poor fevered man lives to see another day,” she said, “it will only be because this house makes Death too sick to collect him.”
We retraced our steps out of the grove of monsters, leaving the upper glade for me to see the next time. My gaze lingered again on the statues we passed—even the slender women with their water jars.
“You like them?” Grandmother asked, hooking a thumb at the women.
My face burned again. I attempted a casual shrug and said, “Yes,” in an offhand way.
“Boys!” she said, chuckling.
To change the subject, I asked her what Mr. Girandole ate.
“He’s quite a gardener and a hunter. The forest keeps his larder full.”
“Does he need to eat?”
“Perhaps not to live, but he feels better when he does. He becomes morose when he’s tired or hungry.”
We picked up enough sticks to make a proper load, but we encountered no one. When we’d tottered at last through the back gate, Grandmother went straight to her room for a nap, and I sank onto the garden bench in the hot, drowsy, westering light.
I found myself imagining what the hour of dusk would look like back in the grove, with shadows deepening, the last light red through the leaves, fireflies winking like fairy lamps, and curtains of soft night falling everywhere. I remembered my dream of the monsters beginning to move when I turned away from them. If ever they came to life, it would be in the twilight. I thought of Mr. Girandole keeping his vigil there, watching alone over a man who hovered between life and death.
It had been only two days since R —— had fallen from the sky—two days, but I’d seen so much since then. The world for me had grown bigger and older and wilder; like the sacred grove, it held secrets buried within its tangles.
* * * *
Grandmother woke me early the next morning and announced that we were going to Wool Island. Of course, there were good reasons: Grandmother had run low on yarn for knitting, a trip to the island made a pleasant day’s outing, and I hadn’t been there yet. But Grandmother also had it in her head that this was the best way to dispose of R ——’s gun once and for all. I didn’t quite follow her reasoning: it seemed to me Mr. Girandole’s idea had been better—to take the gun somewhere into the mountain forests and bury it. But I also knew that, in her thinking, Grandmother was usually at least ten steps ahead of me.
After breakfast, she set the gun carefully onto the kitchen table, kept the barrel turned away from us, stayed well clear of the trigger, and worked with it until she found out how to remove the magazine. She put this clip and the gun separately into a cloth bag with a drawstring, closed the neck, wrapped it in a large rag, and nestled this bundle in the bottom of her carpet bag. Then we loaded the bag with crackers, sardines, a dented silvery water bottle with the cap screwed on tightly, and eight or nine bright-skinned tangerines. Grandmother remembered little cups for the water. Finally, we each tucked in the books we were reading: hers was a novel and mine was Arabian Nights. Just as we were leaving, I thought I might need my sketching kit and tossed it in, too. There was still plenty of room for the wool yarn Grandmother would buy, but the bag was heavy, so I carried it again.
We passed along the main street, Grandmother stopping at her favorite resting places. These were usually beside particularly well-tended gardens she could admire. She would sit for a few minutes on an iron bench or a low wall and study the fruit trees, the rows of sprouts, or the rose bushes. To me, none of the gardens seemed quite as complete or as satisfying as Grandmother’s, with its balances of color and shady depth, splendor and secrecy.
Soldiers still made patrols, and the town continued to buzz with speculation about the enemy fugitive. Mrs. O ——, who was out watering her tomatoes, delivered her opinion (quite loudly, because she didn’t hear well) that the missing pilot had gone over the mountain and was headed inland. But another lady with thick eyebrows theorized that he’d stowed away in a cannery truck and was even now traveling down the coast behind tins of tuna and salmon. Mrs. D ——, not one to let the tension dissipate, suggested that the pilot might be hiding in a cellar or in one of the sea-caves, and that he prowled through the village at night, ransacking the garbage for food.
“It wouldn’t be easy to elude the patrols,” Grandmother said.
“Easy enough for him!” Mrs. D —— insisted. “In that country, they live by trapping and shooting wild animals. They’re like wolves!”
I didn’t think wolves either trapped or shot their prey, but Mrs. D —— seemed fond of the idea of an enemy who could see in the dark and evade our soldiers like a puff of night mist.
As soon as she could, Grandmother hurried us onward.
The Army launch was gone from the harbor. Through the window of the lunch kitchen, we saw three soldiers sitting at the counter, drinking coffee. None of them was my father, of course—I couldn’t move on until I was sure, though I knew he wasn’t in our country.
“Give them another day or two,” Grandmother said, “and they’ll decide they have better things to do elsewhere.”
The early ferry had left for Wool Island at six a.m. We were taking the second one, scheduled for ten. Though we’d left the house in plenty of time, after so much resting and visiting along the way, we were only just in time. We hurried up the gravel walk to the ticket office, a white building with a row of decorative cabbages along its foundation and a flag dancing above it.
Grandmother was intent on reaching the entrance—already the ferry’s engine chugged, and its horn blasted a long, coppery note. But something caught my gaze, and I turned in the doorway. On a second narrow street that joined the first at a sharp angle, an Army truck stood parked against the curb, its canvas sides flapping in the breeze; and just behind it was the staff car we’d seen outside the hotel. I wondered which of the shops or tall boathouses the soldiers might be in. Dashing into the ticket office behind Grandmother, I opened my mouth to tell her about the vehicles—but stopped short when I saw that the waiting room was full of soldiers.
Chattering, puffing on cigarettes, they slung their rifles over their shoulders and filed out the boarding door. They were all going to Wool Island, too.
I’m sure my face turned a shade paler. My instinct was to back out the door. All I could think of was the carpet bag on my arm and of the gun hidden inside it. When I turned in horror to find Grandmother, I saw an Army officer smiling at her, tipping his hat.
I disliked this portly man immediately. His smile was wide and toothy, his slick hair as shiny as his boots. Ornamental pins glinted on his chest and collar. “Take your time, Madam,” he said to Grandmother. “I’ll see that we don’t leave without you.”
Calling a polite thank-you, Grandmother found my shoulder with a reassuring pat that became something of a death grip, and steered me to the ticket window.
I started to express my disbelief that we were still going to buy tickets, but she obliterated my words with a bright “Come along, now.”
With a steady cheerfulness, she picked the exact change from her coin purse and slid it across to the gray-haired man at the window, who tore two tickets from a roll and handed them over. “Comes back at one and five,” he told her through his prodigious mustache, his scowl and tone saying that he thought we were the sort who typically missed ferry departures.
I looked at Grandmother in panic. Her eyes glittered, but she said, “Calm down. Good behavior,” and guided me ahead of her out the door after the last soldier.
We turned left, climbed down three steps, and moved along a wooden pier that clunked beneath the soldiers’ boots. A few of the men out at the dock’s end were singing as they jostled each other. One of the song’s lines made me raise my head in disbelief and try to hear more—but another soldier jabbed those men and yelled at them to shut up, gesturing toward us. Grandmother was concentrating on her footing. The smells of sea-brine and engine exhaust washed over us. I eased past a coiled rope as big around as my arm, thinking it looked like a giant snake. Another man took our tickets and helped Grandmother down a short metal stairway into the ferry.
As I clambered over the boat’s side, a soldier offered a sun-browned, callused hand. “That bag’s as big as you,” he said. I grinned back, wishing I were anywhere but there.
The ferry’s horn blared again, right over my head, and I winced. Looking up, I saw a plane whine past, flying low—one of ours.
“Flyboys,” said one of the soldiers scornfully, and his friend laughed.
The ferry had two levels, its interior much like that of a bus or train, with a central aisle and bench seats along both sides, all facing forward. Its pilot occupied an enclosed cabin at the front of the lower level. We were taking the smaller passenger ferry; Grandmother had told me of a larger one that could carry cars and trucks, but it made only one trip per day.
At least ten soldiers spread themselves around, wandering the aisle and finding places they liked, some sitting sideways with their legs up and arms on the seat backs, shouting to one another over the revving engine. Some clattered up the stairs to the top deck. All the windows were open, letting in the fresh salt breeze. Perhaps half a dozen people from the village were scattered throughout the cabin.
The soldier nearest me, with pale eyes and a shaved head, twirled his cap on a finger and stared at me without grinning. I froze, terrified of taking another step. I glanced toward Grandmother, who was peering up the front stairwell, shading her eyes. The soldier tipped his head sideways, still intent on me. I imagined it was how he would look at an enemy prisoner.
He leaned toward me, his face no more than a foot from mine. I could see a fresh shaving cut on his chin and an old scar that interrupted his right eyebrow. Still I could not move.
His companion gave him a shove.
Both soldiers laughed then, and the one with the pale eyes clapped my arm. “It’s all right, C ——!” He called me by the name of the cinema star.
Grandmother shuffed back to me. “Want to go upstairs? You can see more from up there.”
I wanted to be wherever the soldiers weren’t. I couldn’t tell yet where most of them would settle, so I nodded. Telling me to go ahead of her, Grandmother took her time, gripping the handrail and her stick. Outside, the ticket-taker undid two more of the fat snake-ropes from huge cleats and threw them aboard. Again, the horn blasted.
The engine changed pitch, and we churned away from the dock. There were only three soldiers on the top level—so far—and another handful of civilians. I didn’t see any that I knew to be Grandmother’s friends. I watched the harbor slipping by, the boats and the wharves, the rocks and the houses. Sunlight sparkled on the water. Two fishermen waved from a boat’s deck; most of the people and soldiers waved back. A seagull landed right on the ferry’s rail and balanced there looking about, enjoying the ride.
We’d no more than gotten settled on a bench near the front, to the right of the aisle, when a gaggle of soldiers tromped up the stairs. The first one “crawled” with his hands clutching the seat backs, right and left. The men all looked at us, some wishing us a good day, some tipping hats to Grandmother, a few serious. Grandmother nodded back, austere and dignified. The one with the pale, staring eyes didn’t come up, and I was glad.
I couldn’t help turning in my seat to look at the men. Did any of them know my father? Had some perhaps trained with him or marched with him? Had they fought the enemy together? Most of these looked young, even to me then, more like my friends’ older brothers than like our fathers. They might have been a boatload of schoolboys horsing around, noisy and carefree. One groomed his slick hair with a comb, two others messed it up, and a fake fight ensued. My gaze drifted to the rifles leaning beside each man, the metal parts dark and gleaming in the bright light.
One soldier sat on a bench by himself, reading a soft-covered book small enough to fit in his pocket. Studying his large, beakish nose, the red blotchiness of his teenaged complexion, I wondered what the book was.
My heart sank as the shiny-haired commanding officer appeared and stopped in front of us. “You made it aboard, Madam,” he said. Behind us, the tomfoolery died quickly down.
“With your help, Major,” answered Grandmother.
I made the connection: this was the major Grandmother had seen through the hotel window, the one whom Grandfather wouldn’t have liked. I was sure my father wouldn’t like him, either.
Removing his flat-topped hat, the man raised his eyebrows in surprise. “And how do you know that I’m a major?”
“Well, even if you weren’t wearing a major’s bars, we in the village all know our Major P ——.”
He laughed in obvious delight. Grandmother didn’t talk like most of the villagers. She tended to stand out wherever she went.
“May I?” he asked, indicating the seat across the aisle from us.
“Of course,” Grandmother said to my dismay. But what else could she have said?
“You’re no stranger to the Army,” the major said. His aide, who carried a bulky black case on a shoulder strap, took the seat in front of him.
“No,” Grandmother said. She explained that her son—my papa—was currently serving as an Army captain, and she cited his name and that of his regiment. Moreover, she went on, her husband in his youth had put in six years of voluntary service before the First War.
“Well, then!” exclaimed Major P ——. “You’re quite a patriot! Mrs. T ——, is it?” (He’d gotten her name from her mention of my father.)
Grandmother introduced herself properly and added that I was her grandson, that I was staying for the summer.
I didn’t like being under the major’s gaze. “And are you going to be a soldier, like your father and grandfather?” He leaned toward me with his elbows on his knees.
“I don’t know,” I said in a small voice. I meant that I hoped not, that I didn’t want to be a soldier any more than my papa did. But that hardly seemed the wise thing to say.
“You have a tradition to uphold!” he said. “Don’t you want to make your family proud?”
He laughed, showing his teeth, and batted my shoulder. “Well, you have a long while to decide yet, and there are many ways to serve the motherland.”
He returned his attention to Grandmother, which made me feel marginally better. I still had the carpet bag over my shoulder, pinned beneath my elbow on the side toward the wall. I imagined R ——’s gun making a gun-shaped bulge in the bag’s fabric—though that, of course, was ridiculous.
The major repeated Grandmother’s family name. Then a light seemed to go on behind his eyes. “In fact, I’ve heard of you, Madam. Your name has come up more than once in the last couple days. I’d made a note to come and see you—and fate brings us together here!”
“Really?” asked Grandmother, looking amused. “In what connection has my name come up?”
“Nothing but good is attributed to you, I assure you. Particularly . . .” A curious expression crossed his face, and he gestured absently with his hat. Its bill was as black and shiny as his boots. “Particularly, I’ve heard that you are the local authority on those unusual old statues up in the forest.”
I felt as if someone had touched cold metal to the back of my neck.
Grandmother smiled. “The grove of monsters? I’m hardly an authority.”
“Yet you are clearly a woman of education.”
Perhaps to change the subject, Grandmother explained how she’d gone away to school, and how her husband, after his time in the Army, had been a finish carpenter of some renown. She’d traveled with him to sell his bookshelves and cabinets even in the neighboring countries. Together they’d attended many concerts and known the friendship of poets, musicians, and artists; they had vacationed at the beach cottage of the writer T —— L ——, for whom Grandfather had crafted a bed. On trips to the grand and ancient cities, Grandmother had entertained herself in museums and libraries while Grandfather installed his exquisite mantelpieces in many a fine home. (Which explained, I thought in later years, how it was that Grandmother had never needed to work at the cannery or take in washing and mending like so many of her friends did; she spent her long widowhood in modest comfort.)
The major looked at her in apparent wonder. “Am I to understand, Mrs. T ——, that you might have lived anywhere, and you chose this village?”
“I was born here,” Grandmother said. “I’ve lived all my life in the cottage my father built. I love the people. I love my garden and the sea and the mountains and the sky. The sky is different, you know, depending on which part of it you live under.”
Major P —— tossed his hat onto the bench beside him and tapped his aide on the shoulder. “A meeting with such a remarkable woman calls for a toast.”
Grandmother protested, but the major would hear none of it. The aide pulled from the black clasp case a corked bottle of wine and a set of ceramic cups. Popping the cork with a flourish, the major began filling them. “Please forgive the barbarity of the tableware,” he said. “Tulip-stemmed glasses do not travel well.”
He placed one cup in Grandmother’s hands and one in mine, giving me a fatherly wink. Then he filled one for the aide and one for himself. I glanced over my shoulder to see some of the soldiers watching us with curiosity and the villagers looking on impassively. We were near the front of the upper cabin, so we couldn’t help providing a show for everyone behind us.
“To victory,” the major said, “and to our country, with its noble history of struggle and perseverance.”
“To our country,” Grandmother agreed.
The wine was a full-bodied type, a little more bitter than I was used to. I held the cup with both hands, afraid of dropping it.
“But these fantastic monsters in the wood,” the major resumed suddenly. “Giants and dragons and such. You’re not afraid of them, are you?”
“Why should I be?” asked Grandmother. “Of all that humans can design, art is fairly innocuous.”
The major chuckled. “Some would debate that.”
“No doubt. But no, I think our monsters, asleep up there on the mountainside, are more in the nature of guardians. They represent a time when we celebrated beauty. Myth and story and dreams.”
“When we had the leisure to do so,” said the major. He swirled the wine in his cup, savoring the bouquet. “That time will come again, when we can return to the finer things. For now, we must be practical, though pragmatism is a bland feast. I understand that there is actually a law in effect which prohibits trespassing into any ruins of this type, of which our land has many.”
Grandmother chose to address only his last few words: “We were an artistic people.”
“And always shall be!” The major sipped his wine, and I noticed how rarely he blinked as he studied Grandmother’s face. “Those statues are marvelous pieces. They should be preserved.”
“I suspect they will be,” said Grandmother. “When . . . we can return to the finer things.”
“Perhaps the day will come sooner rather than later. I was speaking the other day with a friend of mine, an artist . . .”
I saw Grandmother glance at him through narrowed eyes.
“But I’ve nearly said too much.” The major smirked and lowered his voice. “He’s an artist of considerable fame, you see, and doesn’t wish it to be widely known that he’s traveling in this part of the country. He’s hoping for peace and quietness.”
“As are we all,” said Grandmother quite pointedly. “Praying for it. But with your artist friend, Major, what were you speaking about?”
“The statues. That enchanting garden above the village. He had heard of it; I expect he’ll pay it a visit soon. With the proper permissions, of course.”
I refrained from looking at Grandmother in alarm, but I didn’t like the thought of a stranger prying into our sacred woods. The fear of R ——’s being discovered only accounted for part of my reason. I had already begun to regard the grove as our own private space. I didn’t want Major P —— to think of it or to speak of it.
The major drained his cup. “I envy my artist friend. He can spend his days in the imaginary landscape of his mind, while I must be more concerned with the mundane. When the war is behind us, men such as I will at last have leave to indulge our spirits again. In the meantime, we do what we can.” He held up the bottle to demonstrate his devotion to fine culture. As he poured more wine, he asked Grandmother to tell him what she knew of the monsters’ history, and she did so, relating what she’d told me: the duke, his obsession with adding to the garden, and his tragic romance; but she left out his strange disappearance.
As she finished, Grandmother deftly returned our empty cups to the aide before the major could refill them.
“So, we’re bound for ——,” said the major, using the name that was printed on maps.
“Wool Island, yes,” answered Grandmother. “We’re going to buy yarn. But I’m surprised that you’re going there—and so many of you, at that. Is it possible that the enemy soldier has gotten over there?”
“I doubt that, unless he’s part fish. No, our visit is an inspection . . . by which I mean mostly a diversion. My men are tired of tramping through the woods, and the beaches over there are lovely.”
“That they are,” said Grandmother. “But the man you’re looking for . . .”
Major P —— shook his head. “I suspect he’s dead of his wounds in some ravine, and five years from now, a woodcutter will happen upon his bones. Or else in a few days, he’ll wander down starving into some village and give himself up. At any rate, I think we’ve done what we can. Try not to worry, Madam. I’m sure he presents no threat.”
Grandmother pursed her lips and gave a nod with her brow furrowed.
The major corked the wine bottle and handed it back to his aide. “I’m afraid I offended the good sisters at the abbey. We made a rather extensive search of their premises.” Smirking again, he brushed at something on his sleeve. “The Church shows compassion to the wounded and the homeless—which is virtuous enough in times of peace.”
Grandmother sighed. “And when have we ever been at peace?”
“Alas, not in my memory.”
“Nor in mine.” Grandmother reached across me and opened the carpet bag. I had a vision of her pulling out the gun and handing it to Major P ——. But instead, she came up with tangerines and gave them to the major and his aide, two each. “Thank you very much for your kindness,” she said. “If you don’t mind, my old legs need stretching. All this sitting and vibration is bad for the circulation.”
“The pleasure has been mine,” said the major. His glance fell upon the carpet bag. “What a charming piece of work! Surely that didn’t come from a local market?”
“No,” said Grandmother. “I made it myself, actually, out of some good remaining parts of the carpet we had when I was a little girl.”
The major held out his hands to see it, and to my shock, Grandmother tugged it off my arm and gave it to him.
He made a dramatic show of straining under its weight. “Are you carrying bricks? It’s a good thing you have this young soldier to tote it for you.”
As he ran his hands over the plush side, tracing the swirling patterns with his fingers, Grandmother explained. “This was the part of the carpet that lay under the bookcase for years. It didn’t fade or get worn out like the rest.”
“And you found its use,” said the major.
“Like your artist friend, I often prefer the ‘landscape of my mind.’ That’s where I find the uses of things.”
Balancing the bag on his knee, he shook his head with a bemused grin. “Mrs. T ——, you are an extraordinary person.”
“Major P ——, you are too kind.” Grandmother bowed humbly.
After what seemed an eternity, he handed back the carpet bag.
Grandmother passed it to me, and I lifted it to my shoulder. We each thanked the major again as we got up, and he waved.
“I wish your husband were still doing his carpentry,” he called after us. “I’ve acquired a set of antique chairs and would like a table that matches.”
Grandmother paused to glance back at him. “He could have helped you, sir.”
We passed between the benches. Once when the boat rocked, a curly-haired soldier lent Grandmother a steadying hand and cheerfully advised her to watch her step, calling her “Grandma” as R —— had done.
An open door at the rear led out onto a tiny aft deck, shaded by a roof but open on the sides and back. To our left, a steep metal stairway descended to the lower level. From the deck’s rail, I looked down onto the edge of a similar deck below, which stuck out a little farther than ours. Beyond this, the churning white wake of the ferry’s engine stretched in a long swath. The land was far away now, green mountains shimmering. All around us was blue air and the dazzling sea.
Seagulls swooped along beside us, coming up from behind, overtaking the ferry, then circling back to overtake it again. They screeched and crossed one another’s paths, now dipping low, now soaring high.
Grandmother placed her walking-stick in a corner of the railing where it wouldn’t fall over. She dug in the bag again and brought out the tin of crackers. Breaking one cracker up, she showed me how to feed the birds: first letting them see what she held, then flinging the morsels into the air, one bit at a time. Gulls veered and snatched the pieces before they hit the water. Other people must have been feeding the seabirds through open windows on the lower deck; some of the gulls dove that way, and sometimes I saw bits of bread in the waves until the birds snapped them up, hardly leaving a ripple.
By the time we’d gone through four or five crackers, I was enjoying myself so much that Grandmother’s next words caught me completely by surprise.
“Now look behind us,” she said quietly. “Is anyone watching?”
At once I knew what she intended, and it was as if my blood had been replaced with ice water. Mouth going dry, I turned and peered in through the doorway. I saw mostly the backs of heads. The soldiers who were sitting sideways seemed engaged in conversation. A few were dozing. None were looking our way.
“No one’s looking,” I murmured back to her. “But some might see us out of the corners of their eyes.”
“This is about as far from land as we get,” Grandmother said, tossing another piece of cracker. “I’ll block the view. You’d better throw it. You can get it farther out there.” She took the bag from my shoulder. “It’s supposed to be unloaded, but a bullet could be in the chamber or whatever they call it. Don’t touch the trigger, and point the barrel away.”
Trying to swallow, I nodded.
Fishing in the bag, she came up with the gun’s magazine, the metal clip loaded with bullets. With a quick motion, she tossed it overboard. A seagull winged close but didn’t like its looks, and the magazine spun into the sea.
Grandmother nodded in satisfaction. Handing me another chunk of cracker, she said, “Check one more time.”
I wandered into the doorway again. Just as I did so, one of the sideways soldiers looked right at me. He touched two fingers to his forehead in salute, then made his hand into the shape of a gun and pretended to shoot me. I gave him what I hoped was a grin, but I probably looked like I was about to throw up.
Going back out to Grandmother, I flung the cracker piece to a gull.
“Are they looking?”
“Yes. One was.”
“But no one’s coming?”
“All right. Then stand right in front of me.”
I did so, facing her.
She’d taken the gun out of the little cloth bag. With our stomachs almost touching, she laid the weapon into my hands. This was the first time I’d touched it. Though I’d held a handgun of my father’s before, I was startled anew at how heavy such things were.
“Quickly,” she said. “Straight out.”
I turned toward the sea and stooped, putting my hands down between my knees, bunching myself for the throw.
Just then, bootsteps clanged on the metal stairs beside us.
“Now,” Grandmother whispered.
Whoever was on the stairs would be facing forward until he got to the landing halfway up; then he’d be looking out over the stern. I had maybe two seconds to throw.
I hurled the gun outward into the sunlight. It flew with agonizing slowness, black and unmistakable. I imagined it getting stuck in the sky, as if the world were a drawing, showing me with my arms raised toward the enormous gun that had replaced the sun. A gull darted toward it and careened away. A second bird collided with it—I was sure I heard the thump over the engine’s growl—but the gull stayed airborne, and the gun was falling again. For a long time after that, I half-believed the gull had gotten the pistol unstuck from the sky, that a shining bird had saved us.
Grandmother patted my back. We gazed down the ferry’s wake as if down a road to another world, a magical land across the water, and our village and our mountain far away became that green world beyond time. The sun was burning the sea, turning everything to molten gold and silver. Birds came streaking and crying out of the blue and the fire.
With the sun in my eyes, I barely saw the splash when the gun finally met the sea, somewhere out in the wake.
Then two soldiers topped the stairs, rifles on their backs, and the first looked down at me. It was the one with the shaved head, the wide eyes.
I shrank against Grandmother, trying to get enough air into my lungs.
Leaning down as he passed me, the soldier touched the center of my chest with his pointer finger. He lingered again, staring at me. In a husky whisper, he said, “It all ends in fire.”
Then he ducked through the cabin door behind the other man.
“What did he say?” asked Grandmother.
I shook my head, too afraid to answer. The words reminded me vaguely of something, some old fear or dream. I didn’t understand what he meant, but it felt as if I’d heard a voice from a burning bush. To repeat it might bring knowledge too terrible. I watched the soldiers go, hand-crawling between the benches, to join their comrades. No one was looking at us.
Grandmother wore a mild expression, but I noticed she had a firm grip on both her walking-stick and the rail. Glancing around to see who might be within earshot, she let out a long breath. “I should have told you not to throw it quite that far. But anyway, well done. We’ve taken an enemy gun out of the fighting permanently. If that’s not doing some good for the war effort, then I don’t know what is.”
* * * *
We could easily have spent the entire day on Wool Island. Beaches of clean white sand wandered away in both directions from where the ferry docked. Shops along the boardwalk sold fruit and hats, pans and dishes, figurines, paintings, wood-carvings, stoneware, pinwheels and noisemakers, noodles and fried breads and an array of other foods with enticing smells—and most of all, wool: yarn dyed in every color imaginable, and yarn knitted into caps, shawls, sweaters, socks, and blankets. People bought these warm things, even in the summer.
Sheep covered the green mountainsides so thickly that they seemed to be growing there, a ubiquitous woolly shrub.
To make the best use of our time, Grandmother sent me to wade in the surf while she browsed among the stalls, choosing her yarn. I played tag with the waves, following the ones that retreated, then reversing my course and scrambling to safety as reinforcements arrived. Though I’d left my shoes and socks high up the beach, my pants were soon drenched past the knees.
The smooth, wet sand ground deliciously under my feet. I picked up shells of amazing shapes and colors, washing them in the swells, turning them in the light. Several of the best I dropped into my pockets.
Farther along the coast, I saw a group of the soldiers at the water’s edge, their boots and rifles abandoned. They laughed and shouted and pushed each other, splashing. Seagulls glided as they fished.
I ran back now and then to check on Grandmother. When she had the carpet bag stuffed with yarn and two full shopping bags besides, we bought noodles and sat at a boardwalk table under a fringed umbrella. To lighten the load, we ate as many tangerines as we could and drank the crock of milk. After we sat for a while, Grandmother waded, too. Her feet were like things grown in her garden under the soil, bulbous with shiny bunions.
I had calmed down enough to repeat what the soldier had whispered to me.
Grandmother didn’t seem alarmed by the words at all, which relieved me.
“What do you think he was talking about?” I asked.
She shrugged, stooping to let a wave crash over her arms. “The end of the world, maybe. Soldiers think about such things.”
“Does the world end in fire?”
“Yes, next time. Water the first time, fire the next.”
I watched the foam sluice landward around my feet, then retreat, trailing silt—in and out, the sea always roaring. Out beyond the breakwater, the water was deep blue, and the scattered white caps on waves were like shreds of the clouds.
Neither of us wanted to leave, but we thought it best to take the one o’clock ferry back. For one thing, the soldiers and Major P —— would likely stay until the five o’clock departure; and for another, I think Grandmother felt as guilty as I did for playing on the beach when R —— lay in his condition in the leaning house, and Mr. Girandole had the whole job of watching over him. We wanted to be back home where Mr. Girandole could find us, at least.
There wasn’t a single soldier in the ticket office or on board, which relieved us. The ferry itself was a different boat but designed the same: this must be the one that had left the mainland in the early morning. The only drawback was that Mrs. C —— waved to us from the middle of the cabin, and there was no escape. She talked without stopping, showing us everything she’d bought and then explaining how she’d come over on the six a.m. ferry, which strictly speaking was a violation of the curfew, but she lived near enough to the ferry dock that she’d decided to brave the short walk through the streets in the gray light. And a tense journey it had been: she’d heard footsteps crunching behind the garden hedge where Mr. and Mrs. A —— lived, moving along in parallel to her as she hurried down the street. Since she knew neither of the A ——s were early risers, the sounds alarmed her greatly, especially when—looking back from the corner—she saw the dark figure of a man watching her from between the rose bushes. She’d run the last few steps to the ferry and counted herself lucky to have made it with her life. Then her talk ranged on through a radio show she’d heard and a visit she’d had with Mrs. D ——.
In time, Grandmother’s polite replies became mere grunts, and she closed her eyes for longer and longer intervals as she listened. Even I abandoned her, taking a turn through the upper deck and out onto the back platform, where I watched the gulls and the waves. I wondered if the mer-folk down in the quiet emerald depths had found R ——’s gun, and what they might do with it. I imagined their king feeding it to the greatest of the giant clams, and that someday, the gun would lie at the center of a huge pearl.
Back in the village at a little past three o’clock, we noticed a pair of soldiers trudging up the main street and a couple more patrolling a field. I thought it was unfair that not all of them had gotten to go to Wool Island.
At home, I put the seashells into the drawer of the table beside my bed, then picked up the photo in its frame and studied my parents’ faces. Grandmother had said that soldiers thought about the end of the world; I wondered if my papa did as he sat in his tent or watched the waves or the night sky. I touched the four of us with my fingertips, wishing we were all together.
Grandmother went straight to her room, exhausted. But she suggested that if I had the energy, I might want to hike up to the sacred woods and see how things were going there. The idea thrilled me—Grandmother was asking me to do something important in her stead. “Do you remember the way?” she asked.
“Well, you can’t get really lost,” she said. “Up leads to the mountain, and down will bring you back to the village.” She determined I should take nothing with me. “If anyone asks, you’re just exploring the woods. See if Girandole needs anything. Get back before dark.” Having an afterthought, she asked, “You’re not afraid to go up there alone, are you?”
“No.” But I agreed with the notion of leaving the garden well before dark.
She nodded. “You don’t have to go, you know. If you don’t, I expect Girandole will come here tonight.”
I told her I wanted to visit the grove again.
“Be careful,” she added.
* * * *
As we’d done the day before, I looked carefully around from the shelter of the arbors, but again I saw no one patrolling or watching. It was the hottest part of the day. The sun pounded the steaming grasses in that delightful, unrestrained way it has at the height of summer. Everything in the meadow was still, save for a few buzzing insects, a sprinkling of white-winged butterflies. A pale puff of smoke from the cannery’s chimney hung stationary like the splash from a bucket of white paint, rinse-water swirled in the bucket and flung against the sky.
I moved quickly up into the green light of the woods. The shade felt good. Even so, my shirt was sticking to me by the time I’d reached the parachute. I had no trouble finding my way. There was a weary, trampled look to the underbrush; it had seen a lot of traffic. In another few minutes I faced the dragon again, forever roaring at the harassing dogs.
I hurried beneath the archway, passed Neptune and the boar, then crossed the open sward between the pool of the four women and the elephant. I moved cautiously now, listening, as I approached the leaning house.
As I set foot on the left-hand stairway that climbed to the terrace, Mr. Girandole appeared above me. His expression was so distressed that I froze, staring up at him, unable to voice the terrible question.
Mr. Girandole must have seen my shock. At once, he forced a smile and said, “Oh, no. Forgive me. He is alive, but—where is M —— Is she all right?”
I started breathing again and nodded. Trotting up the steps to the platform, I explained about our trip to Wool Island, but that we’d hurried home, and that Grandmother was taking a nap. When I was close enough to him to whisper, I added, “We threw the gun overboard into the sea. That’s why we went.”
He nodded distractedly, as if he weren’t quite sure what I meant—or as if he had greater concerns on his mind. “I’m glad you’ve come. We’ll all have to speak together as soon as possible.”
“What is it?” I asked. “What’s the matter?”
Mr. Girandole wasn’t wearing his hat, and his hair was in disarray. As he ushered me ahead of him up the steep stairs in the stone house, he said, “The man wakes up sometimes . . . and then he dreams again. He dreams. They. . . . We must all speak together.”
I understood then that he had something important to tell us, but it was Grandmother he most wanted to tell. I was curious but not offended; whatever the problem was, I’d be in no place to give advice.
R —— lay on his pallet, but now his head moved from side to side with the throes of delirium. He looked wretched in the bandages and tattered clothing, one sleeve and one pant leg cut off—like someone adrift in a lifeboat or chained in a dungeon. His face twitched expressively, reminding me of virtuoso musicians when they performed. Now and then he uttered a phrase between breaths—something in his own language.
“What’s he saying?” I asked.
“‘Red star,’” said Mr. Girandole. “‘The red star.’”
I frowned and looked from the feverish man to the faun.
“I don’t know what it means,” said Mr. Girandole, brushing stray hair back from his face. “R —— had a notebook in one back pocket, and a pencil stub. I helped him get them out when he asked me to, and he wrote something strange.”
From the cluttered floor of the sunken compartment, Mr. Girandole picked up a very small notebook with a worn leather cover. An elastic band, anchored in the spine, stretched around it to hold the book closed. Mr. Girandole opened it now and flipped through the pages until he came to a place near the middle, which he showed to me.
I recognized the language of R ——’s country. The short, ordered lines seemed to make up a poem. But almost at once I noticed an unusual symmetry to the writing, to the shape it made on the page. Though I didn’t understand a word of it, I saw that each line was written first forward and then backward—perfectly backward, as if it were being reflected in a mirror. How a man trembling with fever had done such a neat job was quite beyond me—as was the reason for it.
Again I looked wonderingly at Mr. Girandole.
“I translated it on the next page,” he said, and turned one leaf.
Mr. Girandole’s writing sent out loops and dots and cross-slashes in all directions, as if his letters had grown in a wild garden and were still blossoming. But in painstaking detail, he had imitated the mirroring of each line as well. The forward parts read:
A duke the secret knew
And locked the riddle here
Find twice the number Taurus follows with his eye
Sisters dancing in the water and the sky
Heed the words among the trees in stone
Though not all words are true
And they will lead you home
After reading it through several times, I handed the book back to Mr. Girandole. “I’m not sure Grandmother can make any sense of it, either,” I said.
“Perhaps not.” He let out a long breath, fixing a troubled gaze on R ——.
“How many languages do you know?” I asked, guessing that a person who never aged would have time to learn plenty.
He smiled. “All there are—and none, I suppose, when it comes down to it. We Elder Folk—fauns, fairies, all the people of the deep woods, sea, and earth—we’re not children of Babel, like you. Language is not something we learn. Meaning in words is another thing we see and hear, like bark or moss or birdsong.”
“But . . . what you wrote—” I pointed at the notebook. “That was our language, and that was R ——’s. You translated his to ours. You said ‘translated’ yourself.”
He shrugged and nodded. “Just as I know that when your grandmother says ‘We’ll see’ she typically means ‘Yes, eventually.’ That’s translating, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t help laughing. “So . . . there are others?” I asked carefully, watching him. I didn’t want to make him sad if all the Elder Folk had gone from the world, as Grandmother suspected.
“Others of the Old Kind?” He wore again the expression that was both sorrowful and happy. “Oh, yes, there are many others—Folk of so many kinds they can’t all be counted.”
I was relieved. “Grandmother said there weren’t so many left anymore.”
Mr. Girandole nodded slowly, looking far off. “That’s true enough. Great numbers of them have gone back to where we came from. But they won’t all go, as long as there are seasons here—as long as there are dawn and dusk, forests and caverns and flowers and mountains, stars and the moon and the sea—old, deep places and new places and edges to things. Some remain.”
“Are all those things like where you came from?”
“Those things are where we came from. It’s not really a different place—not there and here.” He looked apologetic. “I suppose it doesn’t make sense, the way I say it.”
I shrugged. “It makes sense to me.” It was one of those things I grasped on a deep level, with my heart rather than my mind. It has rung truer to me with every passing year: that the essence of Faery is all around us, written in every leaf.
He regarded me strangely then and looked happier.
But remembering the other part of my errand, I asked if there was anything Mr. Girandole needed.
He appeared to force his thoughts back to the situation. “I’ve already fetched clean water, so for the present, no. I believe M —— mentioned clean bandages. If you can, come back with her early tomorrow. I would risk coming to your cottage tonight, but I’d have to shut R —— inside the secret space. If he woke up, he’d think he was inside his own grave, buried alive.”
“We’ll come early.” I wanted to commend Mr. Girandole for the tremendous job he was doing of caring for R ——. But I only managed a shy smile and a murmured “Thanks.”
Mr. Girandole reminded me of my papa in his kindness, in the warm, gentle approval he exuded—approval for those closest to him. I wondered suddenly if he and my father had been friends—surely they’d met when my papa was a boy, exploring the woods. I wished my father could come to the village again, with my mother and sister. I dreamed of what it could be like when the war was over, when we might all visit Grandmother and sit here among the statues in the quiet green light.
* * * *
Since I still had ample daylight, I decided to explore the part of the garden I hadn’t seen yet: the upper reaches, beyond the dense thicket at the tower’s back. When I announced my intention, Mr. Girandole asked if I wanted him to come along.
I shrugged. “Only if you’d like to,” I said, not wishing to seem either scared or rude.
He smiled, folding his arms across his chest. “Perhaps the garden is best experienced alone. I’m here within shouting distance if you need me.” Settling on his haunches to lean against the wall, he added, “You realize, I suppose, what a rare gift is yours today?”
I wondered what he meant.
“The gift of seeing the other half of the garden for the very first time. These next few moments will come to you but once in your life. Use the gift well.”
I nodded slowly. Truth be told, I often had similar thoughts about other things. Sitting in the top of a certain tree, or watching fireflies in the dusk of a particular summer day, I’d grow sad at the realization that the precise moment would never come again: even if I climbed the tree again or stood in the dusk the next day, I’d be older; the world would be different.
“Don’t go with a heavy heart,” Mr. Girandole called after me. “There are always other moments coming.”
I grinned back. Without the belief in more moments to come, we could never enjoy anything.
I descended the bizarre stairs, stood with relief on the terrace, and made my way down to the floor of the glade. The earth was green and springy underfoot, and the richness of late afternoon light, though indirect, filled the garden. Birds twittered—sometimes the sacred silence of the woods was not silence at all, yet it was soothing.
Again, somewhere a plane droned, so far away I could not discern if it was friendly or otherwise. Of course, as Grandmother said, such distinctions lost their meanings here. I was hearing in the far-off engine the merest rumor of some other world, no more present than the other world of which seashells tell us when we press them to our ears.
First I passed, on my right, the fearsome angel I’d seen from the terrace. Still he stood in deep shade, his stone blacker than that of the other statues, his hair and robes still blown wild by an unfelt wind. Still he held the ring of keys and the mighty chain.
I wondered then at the presence of angel statues here. In the churches, there were angels and saints. This garden held angels, monsters, gods, mermaids . . . all the folk of the old stories. I knew angels to be real; they were in the Bible. And now I knew fauns were real, for one was our friend. The only logical, obvious conclusion excited me. Monsters and fairies were a part of the same world as angels. All these things were real.
Immediately behind the angel’s spreading wings the grove began, a stand of huge, ancient trees rising from an impenetrable nest of bushes. More trees and brush stretched to my left, climbing the wall of the ravine and away to where, in the upper forest, the parachute hung. The single opening in this green wall lay straight ahead, framed by a vine-draped arch.
Holding my breath, I hurried quietly past the angel and through the portal. The ground rose, crossed by exposed roots that formed a natural stairway.
I came into a second clearing, this one, too, roofed over by the limbs and leaves—the other grand gallery. On the west was a gentle slope by which I might have gone back up into the forest. Forward, the ravine ended in steep walls, thickly wooded and overgrown. Eastward, the open glade followed the upper edge of the dense central grove that I’d climbed past.
Just beside me, on the left at the root-stair’s top, was what seemed at first to be a stone coffin: a rectangular slab, and lying flat upon it, the sculpted image of a woman sleeping or dead. She wore a long dress that left only her face, hands, and feet exposed. Her hair flowed down to her waist, and her arms were folded over her heart.
I walked all around her, deciding I preferred the idea that she was asleep, not dead. She was larger than life, about the height of a tall man. I found on one corner of the slab a cigarette-end that one of the soldiers must have left where he mashed it out. I remembered the major talking about the statues, and that he’d spoken of them to others beyond the village. This was how others treated the woods. I stuck the acrid-smelling end into my pocket, determined to throw it away somewhere far from the grove.
As I stooped, studying the slab, I discovered carved letters on the vertical edge. The language was that of our country but in a very old style, so that I had trouble reading it. Part of it, I thought, said like the rain. Now I wished I’d asked Mr. Girandole to accompany me. But with an inward smile, I reminded myself there would be plenty of time to ask about it later: it was a sentence carved in stone and wasn’t going anywhere.
North of the sleeping woman, a magnificent centaur stood beneath a tree, looking just like the best pictures of centaurs. He appeared wise and dextrous, playing an instrument like a harp. Now that I was searching for inscriptions, sure enough, I saw one on his pedestal. I could make it out a little better than the other: Hurry now to find me, then something obscured by moss, and then: but not inside.
I backed away, pondering, and turned in a complete circle. So, the garden was full of words as well as creatures—dreams and riddles. . . . Though I wanted to race ahead, I forced myself to go slowly, to look in all directions, to notice how the light fell. These moments would come but once.
Not far from the centaur, a second angel waited near the ravine’s end. This Heavenly messenger didn’t frighten me in the least. He held his hands up, palms forward, before his shoulders, like Gabriel making his announcement to Mary. But his inscription, cryptically, said, I am it is very true.
I probed all around his base, wondering if I’d missed something. Surely there was more to the sentence. I am what? But there was no more, only smooth stone. I passed my fingers over his sleeve. Even in its weathered state, the craftsmanship was evident; when new, the stone must have seemed as soft and rippling as cloth. I am, the angel asserted; it is very true. I found this angel comforting, as were the words to my imagination. “You all are,” I whispered to the entire garden. “It is very true.”
Turning then, I crossed back to the thicket, drawn toward the space where another statue should fit, though at first I made out only rampant foliage. As I drew very near to the wall of trees, I stopped short, my scalp prickling. A huge beast was hidden there as if about to pounce on me—yes, only another statue; but it was the image of a monstrous bear—now I saw it clearly, buried under the thorns, the base beneath its paws completely obscured. Its stone eyes peered out from the shadows of leaves, its broad head higher than mine.
Mr. Girandole had kept the main gates and pathways clear of vegetation, and I suspected he’d pulled vines off some of the statues, too. Had he let this bear be covered over because it frightened him?
As I stood quivering before the bear, a memory filled my mind, dark and chilly as an unwelcome cloud shadow.
* * * *
The bear prowled in my dreams. The bear could come into any dream, always when least expected. It didn’t need a forest; it didn’t need the dark to hide in. I could be in a sunny room, playing with my soldiers or building a block tower, and I could hear the bear breathing. I could hear the scratch of its claws outside the window, where the curtains fluttered. I could hear the ponderous thudding of its paws in the hallway, creaking the boards. Behind the murmur of traffic or voices, I could hear it grunt. No one else in the dream heard it. Only me.
I screamed, springing up in terror, the bedcovers bunched at my throat.
The bear waited, somewhere nearby.
My mother would turn on the light. She would rock me and sit beside me and stroke my hair. She would sing softly. The bear padded away, but it was only biding its time.
My father said there were good policemen in dreams—so silent and watchful that I would never see or hear them, but they had rifles and would shoot any bear who came near me. I liked the idea, but I knew he was only saying it to make me feel better. The bear came close all the time, and no unseen policemen ever shot it.
One day when I was five, I found that the bear was not confined to dreams. I was wide awake, looking out of the back window on a dim, blustery day, and somehow— by the strange light, by the gusting, twisty wind—I knew the bear had come. It was out there, behind the fence of our narrow city yard, behind the pickets with their rusty nails, behind the stack of bricks. It was beyond the edge of the window’s frame with its globby white paint. It was hidden by the curtains my mother had sewn, printed with clusters of grapes, apples, and pears. I couldn’t move, couldn’t look away from the window or call to my mother, because if I did, the bear would be in the house, just beyond the kitchen arch by the tall mirror. Its enormous body would fill the hallway. I could smell the bear. With that musk filling my senses, my eyesight shimmered as if everything were electric and sparking. I remember the fruit on the curtains fading to gray.
I woke up in my bed, my mother wiping my forehead and cheeks with a cold, wet cloth. My head ached; my stomach roiled. I had influenza and was in bed for two endless days and nights, unable to keep even water down. Whenever I tried to sip the water I wanted so desperately, I would have relief for a few minutes, then vomit into a pan while my mother rubbed my back, my nose searing, my body racked with sobs. She read me fairy tales, as many as I wanted to hear. I wept, so grateful that she was beside me. When he was home from work, my papa sat with me too.
I dreamed of the bear only once or twice after that. The last time, there was fire, a blaze like the heart of a furnace that was destroying everything around me. The bear stood in the midst of the fire, its fur smoking and reeking, its flesh burning. It snarled at me, its face oozing blood from many slashes, as if someone had attacked it with a knife. Maybe one of my father’s policemen had tried to protect me.
* * * *
In the sacred woods, my heart raced at the memory. With an effort, I shook it away and moved on, aware that the sun was lowering. I had not dreamed of the bear or felt its presence for a long time, and I did not want to think about it now. I did not want it ever to come back.
Past the angel, in a narrow gap among the trees on the steep north wall, a stairway appeared to climb up and out of the garden. I saw a hill high above, toward which the stairs ascended—a grassy rise in full sunlight.
Leaving the stairs for another day, I pushed on eastward.
Slowly, in the deepening shadows of late afternoon, a dark cliff took shape ahead. After a few cautious steps, I halted and stared.
An enormous face glowered from the rock wall. Beneath a wrinkled, furious brow, its eyes were empty pits. Nostrils flared in a broad nose, and its screaming mouth was a cave, a portal into blackness—the top lined with teeth.
The face seemed more monstrous than human, with protrusions atop that might have been ears or horns and a twisting fringe that suggested a beard or a lion’s mane. A young birch had grown up beside the jaw, passing close to one eye like a wayward strand of hair. The whole terrifying visage was mottled black and gray from centuries of weather.
I crept nearer, fascinated. Never had I seen anything at once so horrible and so delightful. Hardly daring to breathe, I tiptoed up the weed-choked steps to the yawning mouth—and nearly yelled when a bird emerged from one of the eyes in a burst of wing beats.
The mouth was indeed the doorway into a single room. Rough-hewn, dank, and littered with leaves, the chamber held a stone table and benches—a picnic table, it seemed, housed inside a shrieking head. I glimpsed on the back wall a carving of angels, but I didn’t look closely. It was time to head homeward.
I retreated from the cave, all the way to the bottom of the steps, and checked my surroundings to be sure I was alone. The great central thicket filled the entire view southwestward. For a moment, I thought I saw another stone object there among the giant trees—a soaring pillar wrapped in vines. But it was only a dead tree trunk, the bleached wood resembling stone.
Past the cave, the glade continued to curve, leading around the end of the central thicket and down a slope toward another arch like the one I’d come through. Far beyond it I saw Heracles towering over the bushes, so I knew the path would take me down to the lower garden once more.
As I went, a wall of rounded stones ran beside me on the left, reaching up to about the height of my elbows. Looking over its top, to where another gradual rise left the ravine, I saw her at last: the mermaid. Years ago, Grandmother had come upon her from behind, wandering down the slope I now faced, its branch-strewn ground dappled with golden patches of sun. But I was face to face with her. She wore a tranquil expression beneath plaits of curly hair. Down to the waist she was a woman, but from there, two scaly fish’s tails stretched off along the ground in opposite directions, almost like impossibly long legs ending in graceful crescents.
Hurrying now, I passed beneath the arch into the lower garden, found myself back at the tortoise and the elephant, and turned west again to the leaning house.
On the way there, I discovered one more pedestal in the gloom of the thicket’s edge. It was just a base; the statue that had stood there was gone, broken in some former time. Only feet remained—exquisitely carved feet in sandals. I wondered if the fallen statue might lie among the trees and bushes behind the pedestal; a cursory glance showed me nothing, but there wasn’t time for a proper search. The pedestal’s engraving said, Behold in me.
I sighed in frustration, thinking that without the statue that had stood here, some vital piece of the garden’s puzzle might be lost.
I’d intended to call up to Mr. Girandole that I was going, but he was already looking out from the upper window. I had so many questions for him and Grandmother, but they would have to wait.
“You’ve seen it all now?” asked Mr. Girandole.
“Not all,” I said, standing below the terrace. “I didn’t go up the stairway to the hilltop.”
“Ah. Then you have something more yet to see.”
“I have to go now,” I said. “Are you sure you don’t need anything?”
He grinned, resting his arms on the sill. “Only the things M —— is bound to think of.”
On the walk back to Grandmother’s cottage, I decided that I would keep a notebook about the sacred woods. As Grandmother advised, I would include nothing about Mr. Girandole or R ——, but I’d write down every inscription from every statue, getting Grandmother and Mr. Girandole to help me read all the words. Maybe I would try sketching more of the statues. If there was sense to be made of it all, I wanted to try.
I also remembered the urgency in Mr. Girandole’s face, and the fact that he had something to tell us.
* * * *
I burst into the back garden, eager to tell Grandmother my news, but fortunately I looked before I blurted anything: Mrs. F ——, Grandmother’s stern next-door neighbor, had dropped by. She and Grandmother sat on the bench under the trellis, framed by myrtle and fuchsia, like ladies in a painting. The teapot, cups, and crackers were arranged on a little folding table.
Mrs. F ——, whose hair was straight, white, and cropped like a helmet, looked me up and down and asked if I’d been playing in the woods. I was sure Grandmother had already told her so, but apparently Mrs. F —— wanted to hear it from my own lips.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered.
Mrs. F —— twisted her mouth and looked reproachfully from me to Grandmother, as if I’d confessed to a crime.
“He knows not to go far,” Grandmother offered.
“It’s not a question of far,” said Mrs. F ——. “You don’t have to go far into the ocean to drown.”
Apparently, Mrs. F —— didn’t like either the forest or the sea.
“It’s no good being afraid of everything,” said Grandmother mildly, with a smile in her voice.
“Fish get into nets whether they’re afraid of swimming or not,” said Mrs. F ——. I wondered if it was a proverb, like one of Mrs. D ——’s. In the village, people didn’t need much more than proverbs to talk.
Grandmother said nothing but poured Mrs. F —— another cup of tea.
Mrs. F —— abandoned the subject; she’d lived next to Grandmother for a long time and evidently knew she was wasting her breath. “Well, we have different ideas about raising them, but yours is safely grown and out of the nest, and so are mine. We’ve been blessed.”
Grandmother smiled and agreed.
* * * *
When Mrs. F —— had finally gone, I asked Grandmother why she’d come over.
“Being neighborly,” she said. “You have to pay a visit when someone’s garden is in full bloom. She was impressed with the window-boxes especially.”
“Will we have to pay her a visit?”
“Not immediately, because she was just here. But we’ll have others dropping by soon, and I’ll have to do a bit of visiting myself. Which reminds me—we should go to the bakery.” I knew she meant that we’d need ample cookies and crackers to accompany the tea we served.
She looked expectantly at me, and I made my report. Grandmother was relieved that our patient was alive, and that Mr. Girandole was managing so admirably. As I helped her get supper ready, I asked her if she knew about the words carved into the pedestals.
“Yes,” she said, stirring the soup. “I told you the grove was a riddle in stone. I’ve read all those words, at one time or another—or most of them, anyway.”
“Do they make any sense?”
She shook her head, curling her lower lip. “The more you puzzle over them, the more frustrating they seem. It’s quite possible they don’t have meanings at all.”
“No meanings?” I stopped rinsing lettuce to cock my head. “Then why put them there?”
Grandmother carried the steaming pot to the table. “The old duke was quite a trickster. Why build a house that leans like that? Why put a picnic table inside a screaming mouth? I think he may have simply laughed himself sore over people wandering through that garden, scratching their heads.”
I considered the idea. The words inside the leaning house said, Reason departs. I had to allow that everything might be nonsense, but that didn’t ring true to me. I suppose I wanted to believe there were meanings . . . or rather, one meaning to the garden as a whole—a puzzle with a solution. If I’d built such a grove of monsters, I’d have put a meaning there and given a reward to anyone who could discover it.
“It’s full of mischief,” Grandmother went on. “Take the mermaid—did you notice that she’s a perfect mirror of herself? If you imagine a line dividing her in half, you’ll see that everything on the left is also on the right, exactly reversed—every ringlet of hair, the positions of her arms, every scale on her tails.”
I told Grandmother that I wanted to make a notebook on the garden. She nodded. “I have a blank one you can use. Just don’t put in anything incriminating. Protect the guilty, you know.” Then, in a matter-of-fact tone, she added something that nearly made me drop a handful of silverware: “It’s too bad we don’t have the one your father kept when he was a boy. I wonder if he still has it . . .”
“He wrote down things about the garden too?”
“Oh, yes. I remember how excited he’d be to show me new things he’d found and copied. Sometimes, he’d need me to help him read them. He had some grand theories for what it all meant—buried treasures, magic swords . . .” She laughed softly, turned to the window, and looked out of it for a very long time.
I frowned, watching her stiff back.
When she spoke again, her voice seemed on the edge of tears—a sound I’d never heard from her before, and it surprised me.
“He so much wanted me to come with him so that he could show me the monsters. I told him I’d seen them, that it was his time to be seeing them now, and that the garden was his special place—a place only for children. Quite the opposite of what Mrs. F —— says about the woods, isn’t it?”
I nodded, though Grandmother couldn’t see me nodding. When Papa was a boy, she couldn’t go with him to the garden; the sacred woods were Mr. Girandole’s home, and Grandmother had left it and gotten married. For Mr. Girandole’s sake and for her own, she could never set foot there.
There was something else I’d wondered about, and the truth surprised me. “So, Papa never met Mr. Girandole—not even in the garden?”
“No. And that’s how I learned just how strong and noble Girandole is. If Girandole had befriended my son, he could have kept a part of me. He could have had constant news—could have even sent me messages. But that wouldn’t have been the proper thing. It would have brought more hurt than comfort, and undone all that he wanted for me. He chose only to watch.”
A small part of me was excited and proud that I knew Mr. Girandole when my father did not—when my father did not even have proof that fauns existed. But mostly, it made me sorry. All the more, I wanted Papa to come here; I wanted to introduce the two.
Grandmother crossed her arms, and I thought I saw her wipe her eyes. “I never worried about your father when he played in the woods. With Girandole watching, I knew he was safer there than anywhere else in the world.”
In another instant she turned, her strong self again, and declared that the soup was getting cold.
“I wish we could live all our lives in the garden,” I said, wandering over to my chair. I was thinking that there was no school in the woods, no Mondays, no alarm clocks, and certainly no war—only the green, ancient light and stories in wood and stone.
“Well, we can’t,” said Grandmother. “But remember this”—she pointed a spoon at me and shook it for emphasis—“there’s pain, and there’s misery. We can’t avoid pain, but misery is always a choice.”
After we’d eaten supper and washed the dishes, Grandmother found me the blank notebook she’d had tucked away in her desk. It had a beautiful cover of dusky blue cloth and a long ribbon for a place-marker, attached to the binding. The cream-colored pages were of the perfect size: big enough that I could fit a lot onto them but small enough that the book was easy to carry.
“My name and address are written inside the cover,” Grandmother said. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind. It’s wonderful—are you sure I can have it?”
She nodded. “It’s begging to be yours. I heard it begging at night and wondered what the noise was. That will be a happy notebook now; they’re meant to be used, you know. I think I bought it once when I got it in my head to start a diary, but—” She waved a hand in dismissal. “I’d rather do the living than write about it.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome. I can even help you start it properly.” She unfolded a paper and spread it out for me on the tabletop. It was old and yellowed, and I assumed she’d dug it out of her desk, too.
The sky was dark enough now that we needed the lamp. I saw that the paper had just a single sentence written on it in Grandmother’s writing, near the top. It was in the language of four centuries ago—the language of the garden. I could decipher a lot of it, but not everything.
“It’s from the grove,” said Grandmother. “Remember we told you about the main entrance arch, south of the dragon and buried now in bushes and vines? I wouldn’t care to try getting there any more, but these words are carved into the arch, under all those leaves and roots. It says, You who enter this place, observe it piece by piece and tell me afterward whether so many marvels were created for deception or purely for art.”
With the shadows playing over her face, Grandmother looked like an imp. Narrowing her eyes, she said, “Tell me. Deception or art?”
I propped my chin on my palms. “He doesn’t even give us the choice that there’s a meaning.”
“No? That could be hidden in the ‘deception,’ couldn’t it? All the nonsensical clues could be placed to trick us and lead us away from the meaning that’s there if we don’t give up. Or else . . . the duke might just be snickering up his sleeve. But I’ll tell you a secret: this word ‘deception’ used to have another meaning besides the one we’re left with today. It once also meant something like ‘magic’—the power to perform wonders.”
Hurrying to get my pencil, I asked if Grandmother had any of the other inscriptions written down.
“No,” she said. “I don’t even remember why I copied this one.”
To keep myself busy that evening, I wrote a long letter to my parents, telling them all about the garden. Grandmother agreed that it would be safe enough now to go to the post office without much unwanted attention. I addressed the envelope to my mother and asked her in the letter to mail it on to my father when she’d read it. Of course, I said nothing about Mr. Girandole or our patient, R ——. Before I finished, I read over the most recent letter from my mother, which I’d been answering in mine. As always, she’d asked some earnest questions: “Are you eating well? Are you getting along with Grandmother? What are you finding to do?” She also said that the people in my wooden castle were holding a jousting tournament, but that some of the knights were still away on their quests, and they were greatly missed.
I tapped my pencil on my chin, wondering how to answer. Mama wanted me to be well and comfortable, but I knew she’d be sad if I sounded like I was happier here than at home. I wrote, “Grandmother is very nice. I hope we can all visit her soon. I miss you and Papa. I’m eating very well, but I miss your tomato soup and the yellow sauce. Everything is clean, but the way we do the washing here, it all comes out stiffer.” I reviewed the lines, nodding with satisfaction. I added, “And a little scratchy.” Perfect.
* * * *
Morning came, bright and clear, with a soft wind blowing off the sea. We started earlier than usual, loaded up the carpet bag, and took along the hatchet and ropes for more “gathering of firewood” if the situation demanded such. We saw no soldiers, though we didn’t patrol the village.
Mr. Girandole met us at the first archway with the news that R —— was awake but of course still very weak. So, his wounds and our surgery hadn’t killed him, but Grandmother said it came down now to his battle with infection. He really ought to be in a hospital, she said.
Instead of the stone house, Mr. Girandole led us to the pool of the four women with their water pitchers. He motioned us to sit on the lichen-covered edge. The stagnant water reflected the green canopy of leaves and branches above it. Insects skimmed over the water, leaving rings where they touched the surface.
It was awkward to sit with Grandmother between two life-size, unclothed women, two more looming behind us. My head kept wanting to turn. The glade was especially cool at this hour, before the day’s heat warmed it. Traces of mist lingered, and the shadows were in blues and purples. We could easily see the leaning house, the elephant, sea serpent, boar, Neptune, and Heracles rising gigantic near the ravine’s east wall. And away to our left, near the second arch, stood the terrible angel with the keys and chain.
“What is that?” I asked quietly, nodding toward the angel as Mr. Girandole propped one booted hoof on the pool’s rim.
He looked over his shoulder to follow my gaze. “Apollyon,” he said. “The Angel of the Bottomless Pit.”
I shivered, only partly because of the morning’s chill. Whatever the name meant, it was fitting.
“We’re talking here so the man in the house won’t hear us,” Mr. Girandole explained. I saw that he’d brought R ——’s notebook, which he opened and handed to Grandmother. As she read the translation of the poem R —— had written in his delirium, I opened my own notebook on my knees and copied it—the forward version for now: I could add the mirror-script later.
A duke the secret knew
And locked the riddle here
Find twice the number Taurus follows with his eye
Sisters dancing in the water and the sky
Heed the words among the trees in stone
Though not all words are true
And they will lead you home
“Taurus. . . .” Grandmother said at last, rubbing her chin. “Taurus is the bull.”
“There aren’t any bull statues here,” I said. “Are there?”
Mr. Girandole shook his head.
“‘They will lead you home,’” Grandmother said, and looked at Mr. Girandole with a curious light in her eyes.
“The ‘words among the trees in stone’ can only refer to the inscriptions on the statues,” Mr. Girandole said. “And the whole thing is clearly written about this garden—mention of the duke and all.”
Grandmother nodded. “It would seem so . . . but how? How could a feverish man write a poem like this about a place he’s never heard of?”
Mr. Girandole pushed his hat farther back and glanced at the leaning house. “That’s what I wanted to tell you. He’s been dreaming as he hung between life and death. And he speaks . . . Often, he speaks.” Lowering his voice, Mr. Girandole hunched closer. “He has said names—names he could not possibly know, for they are written in no book, and no mortal ear has heard them.”
“Names?” Grandmother whispered back.
“Names of fairies and fauns. People I know. Names of rivers and mountains in the land from which I came.”
Grandmother watched him.
“Don’t you see?” he asked. “Where departed souls go . . . Heaven, Hell, and Faery, my home—it’s all one when you’re through the Gates of Dawn—it all connects. R —— was there, on the edge of death—he was wandering in the mists—but he didn’t go on. He came back.”
“What do you mean?” Grandmother asked.
“For whatever the reason, he wasn’t allowed to stay. It wasn’t time for him to be there yet; I guess it means he has something yet to do here, in this world. This poem came back with him. It was sent with him.”
Mr. Girandole nodded. “It’s not easy anymore to find doors between here and Faery, although once they were everywhere. Even when I still lived there, the two worlds were growing farther apart. Doors were vanishing.”
“I think you’ve told me that,” Grandmother said. “It’s why you can’t go home to your people.”
“But you see, sometimes doors can still be discovered.” Mr. Girandole turned his hat between his hands, thinking. “Now and then, a mortal on this side stumbles upon a fragment of the ancient wisdom in very old writings or through a knowledge of the stars. We know that our duke was intrigued by alchemy—you’ve told me so, M ——. He may have found a secret in some musty book or scroll.”
Alchemy. Magic . . . “deception” . . . the power to perform wonders.
Grandmother spoke in a hush. “A doorway into your world?”
“A doorway that can still open, though it would be hidden well and probably locked.”
“But not the doorway you and the other fauns used before?” she asked. “You would remember that.”
“No,” he said. “We didn’t use a doorway as such—we came to these woods in a dawn mist that made this world one with ours, when such things used to happen. If there’s a door here in the garden, we never knew it. When the fauns left, I’m sure they were following the Piper; the music of the pipes was their way home.”
“Won’t the Piper call you someday?” I asked in a shaky voice.
Mr. Girandole touched the notebook, still open in Grandmother’s lap. “In this, I think perhaps he is. Do you see? My people might know there’s a door here. They might have sent this message to help me find it.”
“But I don’t understand,” I said, thinking of R ——’s poem. “If the fauns know about the door, why do they send hints? Why don’t they just come through it and lead you home?”
Mr. Girandole smiled vaguely. “The poem didn’t come from the fauns. This is quite beyond them, sending words and dreams from one world to another. It must be the work of the Green Lord and the Lady of the Stars, who rule over Faery.”
“Well, whoever sent it,” I said, “if they really want to help, why don’t they just tell us straight?”
Before Mr. Girandole could answer, Grandmother laughed and said, “Nature abhors a straight line.”
The faun smiled. “And a gardener abhors a straight path. It may be a test for me. I am in exile by my own choice. The Lord and Lady may have determined that if I want to come back, I must solve the duke’s puzzle. A mortal’s game, since I cast my lot with mortals.”
Grandmother swallowed. “Then we must solve this garden’s puzzle. We must get you home.”
“But—” Mr. Girandole said. Despite the darkness of his skin, he looked pale.
“No buts. Girandole, I’m an old woman. Do you love this place so much that you want to stay here forever, waiting for other kindred souls to find the garden after you’ve buried me?”
“Most definitely not,” he said.
“Then if what you say is true, this is a gift to us both—the way we can be together.” Glancing at me, she added, “All of us. For more than a handful of years.” She turned back to Mr. Girandole and took his arm. “We humans don’t need magical doorways; we go there anyway, when it’s time. You’re the one who isn’t built to die, poor thing.”
Mr. Girandole seemed at a loss for words. The turn this conversation had taken scared me—Grandmother dying of old age . . . Mr. Girandole going away through a magic door. The appeal of answering the grove’s riddle was swiftly dissolving.
Grandmother patted my back. “There’s nothing to be sad about,” she said. “If that door really leads to what’s beyond this life, then the paths will join up on the other side.”
I was baffied. “Heaven, Hell, and Faery are all the same?” How could so many disparate things be one?
Mr. Girandole gripped my shoulder, his expression rueful and kind. “You can’t begin to understand it from this side. The way there looks the same, but there are choices among the paths—paths that we’re walking on even now, paths that your great-great-grandparents walked. And they go on beyond. You have farther to travel, even after you leave here. It truly is a garden, all of this. Hell is where truly dead things go. But your grandmother is right. We can all be together where things live and bloom.”
I could see something in his eyes that made me feel light inside—a wondering hope, as if he’d just awoken after a long sleep, as if he’d gazed at a marvelous, glowing eastern sky.
“The journey does end,” said Grandmother, nudging him. “We do get there, don’t we, in a little while?”
Eyes brimming, he nodded.
* * * *
Grandmother eyed the leaning house with a growl of disdain. Then, heaving a sigh, she ordered Mr. Girandole and me to stay close behind her on the stairs and catch her if she toppled backward. “And don’t fall yourselves,” she added. “A sorry state that would be, if we all ended up in a broken heap.”
We kept ourselves well braced. I carried the carpet bag, and on the second step, Grandmother thrust her walking-stick into my hands and said, “Here’s your stick.” She went on hands and knees, with Mr. Girandole pushing, and eventually we reached the house’s upper chamber.
In the sunken compartment, R —— had his head raised, as if he’d been alarmed at what sort of grunting, puffing beast might be pawing its way up the stairs.
“Good morning,” said Grandmother briskly, snatching her stick back.
“Good morning,” the pilot answered hoarsely, letting his head fall onto the pallet again. He looked haggard, but the slick pallor was gone from his skin. “I . . . memory you,” he said. “I hear what you do . . . thank you. You save me. Thank you.”
“You aren’t saved yet,” said Grandmother, crouching on the well’s edge to study him. “How do you feel?”
“Hurt all. Sick like dog.”
Grandmother motioned that we should climb into the well and lift her down, which we did. It wasn’t hard with one of us on either side.
We crowded around R —— and looked him over. Dried blood caked the bandages. Grandmother set about clipping them with her shears and gingerly peeling them loose. The pallet was stained and smelled of sweat.
“You’ve kept him clean, anyway,” Grandmother noted. “Is the water in this bucket fresh?”
“I brought it at dawn,” said Mr. Girandole.
Lifting his good arm, R —— ran a hand through his matted, thinning hair. His neck and jaw sprouted golden beard stubble, like my father got when he was on holidays. The pilot grinned at me. “You name?”
I told him my name, and he introduced himself, apparently not remembering that he’d done so before.
“You old how many?”
I told him I was nine, and he nodded.
“You no goat people?”
Grandmother glanced at Mr. Girandole, who had been R ——’s only nursemaid since he woke up. “No,” she said. “We’re people people.”
“Good you here. Mr. Satyr no like me.”
“I’d like you better if you’d stop calling me a satyr,” said Mr. Girandole. “I’ve told you I’m a faun. Satyrs are a vulgar folk. You won’t see me guzzling wine by the skinful.”
Grandmother cocked an eyebrow at him.
“Not by the skinful,” he said.
“And woman?” R —— grinned waggishly. “You run catch woman?”
“Mind your own business,” said Mr. Girandole. “And mind the company.”
“What about you, R ——” Grandmother asked, dampening a rag to clean the wounds. “Do you run and catch women? Do you have a family?”
“Father have. Mother die. Two sister. Brother die. Wife go other man. Take child.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Grandmother said.
I didn’t quite follow who was alive and who was dead, but it sounded as if R —— didn’t have much of a family left.
Grandmother had brought along a clean, raggedy sheet. She cut strips from it to make new bandages.
“I already die?” asked R ——, looking at the ceiling.
“Well, you’re clearly not in Heaven,” said Grandmother, “or you wouldn’t be in pain. And if you were in Hell, we wouldn’t be helping you. So, I’m afraid you’re stuck in the same old world.”
R —— blinked a few times. “But this house . . . funny.”
“Yes, it most certainly is funny. That’s not part of your fever. You’re in the forest near the village of ——, which means you’re well behind enemy lines.”
R ——’s gaze focused on her. “But . . . you help me.”
“I’m not sure if what we’re doing is helping you at all. I’ll say again: you should have a doctor and medicine if you want to live.”
“Madam Grandma.” R ——’s hand found Grandmother’s wrist. “No doctor. Live, die—no distance.”
“No difference?” Grandmother asked.
“Yes.” R —— seemed to be looking beyond the stone walls. “The flute. They dance and sing. Better there, not back. Not go back.” His hand dropped to his side, as if he’d exhausted himself.
“This is the way he talks,” said Mr. Girandole. “He’s been to the edge of Faery, and he’d rather be there than back in his own country, or fighting a war.”
“H’m,” said Grandmother.
I helped hold the sheet so she could cut it more easily.
“You wrote this,” said Mr. Girandole, showing R —— the poem he’d written in the notebook.
R ——’s eyes widened, and he brushed his fingers over the page.
Mr. Girandole held the book steady for him. “What does it mean to you?”
“Many man with goat foots . . . like you. Many man, woman, faces like sun, stars.”
Mr. Girandole exchanged a look with Grandmother. “Why did you write the lines backward?” he asked R ——.
“I write? Not remember.”
It was difficult to imagine what a doctor could have provided that Grandmother did not. She made R —— swallow pills and tonics. She bathed his wounds in disinfectant, re-bandaged them, and had us help her pull the dirty canvas out from under him and replace it with what was left of the clean sheet. When all the boughs and leaves were stuffed into the pallet again, she announced that she had to get out of this leaning place. Before we helped her down the stairs, she told me to unpack the food we’d brought.
“We’re out of milk,” she said. “We’ll have to buy more.”
R —— asked for his notebook, and Mr. Girandole returned it with apparent reluctance. He also helped R —— relocate the stubby pencil. Grandmother said that was a good idea, that maybe the fairies would send another message.
“You have gun?”
Grandmother shook her head. “No one has it. It’s at the bottom of the sea.”
Someday it will be inside a giant pearl, I added silently, remembering the mer-folk.
The pilot blinked and squinted. “How get there?!”
“I put it there,” she said.
R —— looked regretful. “Good gun, was.”
* * * *
I spent the rest of the morning in the grove, running from statue to statue, hunting for the inscriptions and copying them into my notebook. When moss covered parts of the words, I scraped it carefully away.
Grandmother took a nap on one of the benches outside the stone house, using the carpet bag as a pillow. While we were there to keep an eye on the patient, Mr. Girandole made a trip to his own home high on the mountain. He brought back some herbs and roots and cooking ware, and he delivered to R —— a drab green shirt and a brown pair of trousers. Going a ways off into the woods, he built a campfire and made a pot of stew with a rabbit he’d caught. He also burned up the dirty bandages and R ——’s original shirt, pants, and gun holster.
We regrouped for a late lunch on the terrace. Mr. Girandole took stew and tea up to R —— and helped him eat. Then he and Grandmother explained difficult words for me, and we all read through the lines I’d found. In two cases, Grandmother and Mr. Girandole remembered a phrase differently from the way I’d written it, and I went back to the statue to check; once they were right, and once I was. It perplexed me that some of the inscriptions were not even complete thoughts. One gave me the impression that the engraver had grown bored and walked away, leaving the job unfinished; in other instances, he seemed to have begun carving in the middle of an idea. Grandmother wondered if they might be phrases copied or paraphrased from literature.
“It would be like the duke to paraphrase the classics for his own purposes,” Mr. Girandole said, “which would make it harder to identify the originals.”
I barely knew what “the classics” were; Papa used the word to refer collectively to some dusty books with dark brown covers on our shelves. I admired their stately row and their scent, like a solid old wall back in the dimness, holding up a part of our house. I’d never tried to read them, but it didn’t surprise me that Mr. Girandole seemed familiar with the great stories of our world.
I’d found ten different inscriptions:
My steps fall softly like the rain (from the sleeping woman)
Or a thousand cheeses times a thousand if you give me days enough (I found this concealed by bushes on the bear’s pedestal; it had taken some courage to approach the bear again, but in the brightness of midday, I managed it. An inscription about cheeses certainly seemed to be nonsense.)
Hurry now to find me draw near but not inside (from the centaur)
I am it is very true (the comforting words from the announcing angel)
Round and round the dancers go and my answer is in three and seven (from the chamber inside the screaming mouth, where the letters stood above embossed angels on a dull metal plating)
The Mermaid (engraved on a slab before the mermaid)
There was no writing I could see anywhere around the tortoise.
Or walls or ivied garden porch or doorstep have we none (written along the elephant’s base)
Behold in me (from the pedestal of the missing statue, of which only the sandaled feet were left) I searched in the bushes behind but found no fallen statue.
The wild boar had no letters. Perhaps non-mythical animals received no inscriptions, I thought at first—but no, the bear had his . . . as did the elephant.
You have we have all have though perhaps home (from the pool of the four women)
Narrow (This single word was carved on the high-arching back of Neptune’s throne.) Intriguingly, this “Narrow” arced along the top edge of an accompanying illustration: in an elliptical frame on the chair’s tall back, above Neptune’s head, a weathered relief sculpture depicted a ship sailing between two cliffs. Atop one cliff was a monster with several dog-like heads and one head that seemed to be that of a human woman, but it was hard to see—the carving had lost much detail to the passing years. Grandmother, who’d joined me when she finished her nap, pointed out a whirlpool on the ship’s other side. She explained that it was a picture of Odysseus and his crew sailing the narrow strait between the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis.
“That’s a good morning’s work,” said Mr. Girandole, running a dusky finger down my page one final time.
“But I don’t think they’re all here,” said Grandmother. “I seem to remember more.”
I suddenly recalled the Reason departs from the leaning house and wrote it down.
“Yes,” Mr. Girandole agreed, “there are probably a few more. For one thing, you haven’t climbed that last stairway.”
So I did that.
Grandmother returned to the cottage ahead of me; there was garden work that needed doing. I promised to come and help her as soon as I’d seen what was on the hilltop.
I followed the mossy steps upward at the north end of the ravine. Over the centuries, the elements had rounded their edges. Tendrils from the bushes crawled across the path, and I pushed through branches. I wondered if the stairway would make it all the way to the top, or if a wall of foliage would block my way. Insects whirred in the brush. A spray of blue wildflowers had blanketed the stairs in one place; I threaded cautiously through the patch so as not to damage them.
First, the stair climbed far to the right, and at its bend, I looked down the steep bank to the screaming mouth. Then the track switched back left. At the next turn, I was high above the announcing angel. Wandering back to the center, the steps emerged from the bushes and brought me to a grassy meadow on the brow of the hill in brilliant, warm sunlight.
The trees held their distance all around, their crowns still higher than the hill’s summit. Bright butterflies floated over the green carpet, the grasses tasseled in gold and sprinkled with more wild blossoms, an artist’s palette of colors. Straight before me, grand and gray, rose a many-pillared stone temple.
It reminded me of pictures of the Parthenon I’d seen in my mythology book, although this building was smaller and in better repair, with its walls and roof intact. People in airplanes would be able to see it if they looked carefully, I supposed, but the stone was so rimed by lichen and age, it would probably appear to them as no more than some decrepit and long-forgotten shed.
On the pediment above the columns, I found the words I am a gate. More accustomed to the antique mode of writing now, I was sure of the meaning. With excitement I copied the sentence and noted where in the garden it was from.
Was the doorway to the other world here, just beyond the columns? Surely, it couldn’t be so simple. I waded through the grass, which reached to my knees, and climbed carefully up onto the slab. Deep coolness radiated from the interior. I tipped back my head, studying the relief carvings on the triangular pediment: men and women in flowing garments . . . and fauns! I counted at least a dozen fauns, some dancing, some playing harps or pipes.
I turned, wondering if any part of the garden was visible from this high place, but I saw only the rolling tops of the trees. Even giant Heracles was lost beneath them. Trees screened the entire village from my view, though I could see the ocean in the distance, dotted by tiny boats.
The temple had only a single chamber. Two more stone tables stood among the shadows, flanked by their benches. The cross of Christ was molded onto the back wall: a plain cross of cylindrical poles, though only the forward halves of these emerged from the wall. No figure of the Lord hung there. On the floor at its base were a prayer rail and a shelf for kneeling.
I crossed myself, as I’d been taught to do when entering a church, and then padded slowly from wall to wall, from front to back, examining every pillar and corner. I pushed on the walls, tapped on the floor, and searched for anything that might indicate a hidden doorway. The cross was perfectly solid, a three-dimensional extension of the wall. I found no other inscriptions, no images.
I shook my head. I am a gate. How? What gate? Where?
I walked out into the sunlight and sat on the edge of the porch. In the steamy weeds, two bees hummed around the tops of my shoes. This place felt good to me, with all its brightness and air, its cross, and its lack of anything fanciful or grotesque. Much as I loved the gardens below, it was fitting that the path through the grove ended here.
The hilltop temple was the only part of the garden that was not on a circular course. Everything below could be approached from a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction; but to get here, one had to depart from the circles and move along a line. The stairway, though it meandered, led only here; nor could I discover any other path descending into the forest.
I hurried down the steps, my mind racing ahead. I wanted to ask Mr. Girandole if he thought that the temple might conceal the magic doorway. I dashed out from between the bushes, jumped off the bottom step into the upper garden—and found myself face to face with two soldiers. I felt the blood drain from my face.
“Hold it, there!” one ordered me.
I froze in panic, realizing that I’d left the carpet bag, hatchet, and firewood bundle on the terrace of the leaning house, to pick up on my way home. None of these things were in the soldiers’ hands, so perhaps they hadn’t been there yet. The men held their rifles—not aimed at me but ready. They must have heard me trotting down the steps, stirring the bushes.
I tried not to look terrifled. I held my pencil in my hand, the notebook under my arm.
The soldiers moved closer, looking stern. Both were young. The one speaking had sharp, angry-looking features. “What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Playing,” I said. “I went up there.”
“What have you got there? Show it to me.”
Having no choice, I handed over the notebook. Like a fool, I showed them the pencil, too, but they weren’t interested in that.
They slung their rifles onto their shoulders, but the quiet one kept a close eye on me while the other opened the notebook.
I’d copied out R ——’s poem, but I hadn’t labeled it.
“What is this?” asked the soldier, turning a page and frowning at what he saw.
“The g-garden. I wrote down the words from the statues.”
“Why?” he asked, looking at me.
“I . . . I like the monsters.”
“‘A duke the secret knew’—what’s this poem?”
I took a breath. “My grandmother and I wrote it. We like to write things about the woods.”
“Is this your grandmother, M —— T ——” He was looking at the name and address inside the cover.
I told him yes and explained how I was staying with her. He passed the notebook to the other man.
The second soldier flipped through the pages and looked up. “Is this for school?”
“No, sir,” I said. “School’s out for the summer.” It might be out for longer than that, the way things were going in the city.
My stomach squirmed as I thought of the carpet bag. It was full of empty tins and dirty dishes to be taken home and washed. That wasn’t bad—I could say we’d had a picnic. It held the kitchen shears. But far worse, I couldn’t remember what Grandmother had done with the bottles of medicine. Had she left them in the leaning house, or . . . ?
“Are you out here by yourself?”
I nodded. “My grandmother was here earlier, but she went home first.”
“All right. Now, listen: you can’t be up here. It’s dangerous. You tell your grandmother that.”
“We’re putting you on report,” the soldier said. “You tell your grandmother that, too. Do you understand?”
I said that I did.
The second man looked at the first and held up my notebook. “Are we taking this?”
The first soldier considered. “No. He can keep it.” To me, he added, “Go home now. And I mean it. Don’t come up here again.”
I accepted my notebook, skittered past the two men, and ran for the archway. If I could get far enough ahead of them, I hoped to scoop up my things from the terrace before the soldiers had a chance to find them. I kept listening as I went, though, and I just barely heard the first man say, “Let’s take a look up there.”
Good. They were going up to the temple. That bought me some time. I raced past the bear and the sleeping woman, through the arch, and past the Angel of the Bottomless Pit. This time, I had the presence of mind to look around. Seeing no one in the lower glade, I galloped up the steps to the foot of the leaning house.
I skidded to a halt, my eyes widening. My bundle, hatchet, and the carpet bag were gone. I looked under the benches—nothing.
Panic rising again in my chest, I glanced over the rail at the green shadows all around. There must have been more soldiers. I imagined them fanning out, doing a sweep of the grove, and two had found me. The carpet bag was likely on its way to the major right now.
Thinking I’d better warn Mr. Girandole, I was just about to duck into the house when something small and hard tapped me on the head.
An acorn—I saw it roll across the stones at my feet.
Looking up, I saw Mr. Girandole: not in the window, but on the roof. The sight of him brought some relief. “Are you all right?” he whispered.
“Your bag is inside, hidden,” he breathed. “Soldiers in the upper garden.” He waved me away. “You’d better go.”
With a wave, I was off at a run, overwhelmed with thankfulness for Mr. Girandole’s acute hearing. When he’d first heard the patrol coming, he’d popped down to the terrace, retrieved what I’d carelessly left there, and locked it all away with R —— in the secret compartment.
My knees felt like water. I’d have to be a lot more careful from now on.
* * * *
I had to sit through the second half of a neighborly visit from Mrs. D ——, and it became clear to me that Mrs. D —— had harbored no intention of leaving until she’d seen me return alive from the woods. She didn’t approve of my forays there any more than Mrs. F —— did, but Mrs. D —— also seemed to be a little in awe and kept comparing me to Papa regarding my bravery and my handsome looks. At last, she went on her way, and if Grandmother might never truly forgive her for finding out about the setcreasea and fuchsia through legerdemain, at least she praised the garden so highly that Grandmother later said, “I wonder what enthusiasm she has left for the gardens of Paradise.”
I told Grandmother about the soldiers as we weeded, with millipedes and grasshoppers darting away from our fingers.
“You had a close call,” she said. “Thank Heaven for Girandole. No harm was done. And this is the best kind of work to calm you down.”
“We’re on report,” I reminded her.
“I think we’ll survive that,” she said, pulling up a long root. She looked sidelong at me. “You told them we wrote that poem?”
“Camouflage,” I said sheepishly, and focused on weeding.
Before the post office closed, I trotted there with the letter I’d written to my parents and mailed it. I didn’t see any soldiers along the route. At first, I was afraid the building was closed, because the front window was covered by plywood. The postmaster looked tired, but he was glad to see me and inquired after Grandmother.
“Have you been well?” I asked, thinking he actually looked haggard.
“Spry as salt, Boss,” he said, reverting to his old nickname for me. Oddly, I felt somehow as if I’d lost ground, as if we were no longer as close. I couldn’t explain it, and we only exchanged a few words.
Still, I remarked to Grandmother about how strangely he’d acted.
“I’m sure this hasn’t been a good time for Mr. V ——,” she said, chopping an onion. That was the postmaster’s name. “The Army all over the village.”
“Why bad for him?”
She sighed. “He was the mayor before. The other party. He was lucky to keep his job at the post office when things changed—lucky not to have gone to prison. We all stood up for him. Mrs. F ——’s husband in particular, God rest him. I wrote some letters myself . . . well, we’re all fortunate, I guess, that things are no worse. I expect the major has made the last several days very unpleasant for him.”
I felt sorry for Mr. V —— and disliked the major all the more.
Just before sunset, several trucks rolled down the street. Grandmother and I were finishing supper at the garden table, and she sent me around the house to see what I could see. I reached the corner just in time to glimpse the Army staff car passing. I supposed Major P —— was inside it. The trucks, I could see, were full of soldiers, and they were heading out of the village; I noticed which way they turned at the big road.
“That many of them leaving. I think they’ve called off the search,” Grandmother said. “We’re left to fend for ourselves against the enemy.”
“Do you really think so? They might just have something to do.” I remembered my father telling us how he’d helped turn a school into a hospital.
“They have lots of things to do,” said Grandmother. “Major P —— can’t spare the men here, chasing butterflies.”
“Does that mean we can go back to the woods tomorrow?” I asked.
“I think we’d better,” she said. “You’re running out of summer.”
With a pang of sadness, I went indoors to consult a calendar. When I’d arrived here, the spring and summer had seemed an endless time to spend away from home with this formidable old woman I didn’t know. I missed my parents terribly and my friends quite a bit; I wouldn’t mind seeing my sister—I supposed she’d grown a lot. But the thought of leaving Grandmother brought an ache to my chest.
I had just over two weeks remaining.
* * * *