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The Dark and Hollow Places
Some people claimed it was enchanted; others swore it was cursed; but, really, it hardly mattered what you thought because you couldn’t get to it. The place pushed back against all your attempts, setting out twisted thickets of hedge apple trees bristling with curved, medieval-looking thorns. After that came ankle-catching firethorns, thistles, baneberry, and poison oak. If at last you reached the creek, you’d peer across at an impervious curtain of leaves that never crisped or fell with the change of seasons, and vines that stitched the island shut like a coat.
From most sides, it wasn’t even visible, a patch of wildness encircled by water and wedged in a tangle of undergrowth.
There was one place you could almost see the island as an island, and that was where Daniel was today, at his favorite watching place on the footbridge over a contributing brook, a half mile from his house. On breezy afternoons, the foliage might swing briefly aside to let him see the green darken almost to night before his sunstruck eyes.
He pushed away a flop of dirty blond hair and looked down at the line of ripples where the clear water of the tributary met the sullen brown of the stream around the island. Three streams, really, cloudy and bedded in quicksand. That was another barrier, the quicksand. Just ask Widow Beinemann, whose dog jumped in after a stick two summers ago and was sucked down before he could whimper.
Daniel was fascinated by the stories, by the impenetrable green wall before him, and more than anything by the poisonous, white-headed water snakes that wound their lazy S’s through the current. The legend was that the snakes had human faces, though he hadn’t gotten close enough to be sure.
The boy leaned against the railing and felt the wind finger his hair. He had not given up hope of finding a way across. There wasn’t much adventure to be had in the farming town of Everwood; but here was an adventure that had been staring him in the face all his life, and all he could do was stare back.
Imagine exploring this forbidden place where no one had ever been—never, since the moist beginnings of life on earth. It was in this one way like the moon, a land where no one had ever died and no one had ever been born. A place where no one had ever told a lie.
That was important to Daniel, because he too had never lied. It wasn’t that he was especially virtuous. He just couldn’t. He got blinding headaches when he tried. If he tried really hard he’d get a stomach ache as well. Once he’d almost thrown up. The doctor didn’t believe him. And anyway, wasn’t telling the truth a virtue?
It wasn’t such a virtue in school, where the other kids called him “the snitch.” That’s when they weren’t making fun of his tall skinny frame and unruly hair. Girls were especially hard on him. They were full of secrets they didn’t want told. They considered Daniel dangerous, and not in a good way. There was a reason he spent most of his time by himself.
Suddenly, he realized there was someone—no, not a person, a heron, tall as a man—standing across the creek, and his heart thumped guiltily, as if he’d been caught by a teacher. Had it been there the whole time, or magically materialized? A great blue heron it was, imperious in its dark cap and accusing eyes. A brush of white feathers flowed back over its cheek like a trail of smoke. Daniel had seen the bird before, always on the other side, immobile on its stick legs, and it gave him a strange feeling, as if there were a special message meant for him alone, if only he could figure it out.
“Fly me across!” he called.
The bird’s pipe-cleaner neck lowered into a tight S and its yellow eyes glared.
“Yes, you!” Daniel yelled. “You can do it.”
“Who ya yelling at?” came a voice behind him.
Daniel whirled around, blushing. It was only Wes, his kid brother.
“Take a look.”
Wesley rested his chin on the railing. “Oooh.”
Being ten, he immediately bent down, picked up a stone, and threw it.
“Stop it!” Daniel snapped.
“I want to see it fly.”
“Leave it alone!”
Wesley’s mouth tightened. “You’re always bossing me around.”
“Sometimes you need bossing.”
“I’m as smart as you.”
Daniel eased into a smile. “No, Wes, you’re smarter. But sometimes you do dumb things.”
Wesley frowned at his shoes. With his sharp, serious features, ironed shirt and khaki shorts, he looked like a tiny accountant. Actually, he was dressed for summer school. Completely voluntary on his part—he just wanted to learn more about geography, his favorite subject. Daniel had sometimes caught him studying maps long after bedtime. Ten years from now he could be wearing a suit and living in the city. He might even sail off to those foreign countries he was always reading about. Daniel would still be here kicking around in blue jeans.
Probably he’d still be looking for a way onto the island.
“Come on,” said Daniel. “Let’s go see Dad. We can grab something to eat.”
Wesley glanced at the heron. He had another stone, aching to be thrown, which he turned around in his fingers. He let it drop.
They reached the road, a strip of hard-packed dirt between fields. A tractor puttered by, old Wayne Eccles looking down from his rickety throne. “Hey, boys,” he called. The brothers gave a wave and watched as the contraption continued down the road. They always watched when something with a motor came by, it was so rare. Good old Eccles.
Wes kicked pebbles ahead of him as he walked, but had to abandon that to keep up with his brother’s strides. Sometimes it seemed he was always hurrying to catch up and never could. Couldn’t throw a ball as hard, couldn’t run as fast. It was the curse of being four years younger.
Suddenly, Daniel stopped, squinting ahead at distant forms wavering in the afternoon heat. Strangers, he realized. As they came closer, he amended that: strangers from the city. Finally, seeing them clearly: a family.
From the Hardcover edition.
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