Dedicated to the memory of Jerree Infante.
The sound the stone made as it chipped the old oak was dull and hollow. That was good. It made Ben feel better somehow, more shielded from the world. He wondered at that. The wide yard, the house far away, the low-hanging, moss-clad arms of the oak over the marsh: all had been friends all his life, witness to his hottest summers and chillest winters. Why were they so distant now? Their minds elsewhere, when he needed them more today than ever?
His aunt was lying in the guest bed back in the house. All the others crowded around her. Not Ben. She was dying, and he had no words for that. No reference.
Dying was something you did in movies, video games. This was more real. Too real. Its realness made him shrink away, unable somehow to meet its eyes.
Ben threw another stone. It thunked off the oak’s ancient bole, trailed off somewhere on the sandy ground, lost in a tangle of fallen moss. He picked up another. Not a stone this time: an oyster shell, bony and pale. His wrist curved, he spun it through the air. It caught in the oak’s blocky grooves, and Ben smirked.
He sighed. The feat should have made him feel good, but it didn’t. The shell sticking out so clear to his eye only vexed him more.
“What do I say?” he wondered aloud. “What do I tell her? What would she ask me?”
The oak gave no reply, just the breeze in its massive branches.
Ben frowned. Reached for another stone, but found his hand frozen. By the roots of the tree, out from the ranks of golden marsh grass, a boar shuffled, its fur brindled brown-black. Its eye was glassy, cool, dark, but the light in it was feral. And it saw him.
His heart twisted. He couldn’t move. The boar seemed to chuckle, and swung its head, showing both tusks. It leaned forward, bowed slowly. For a moment, no motion. Then somehow, before he saw it, the trampling hooves charged, aiming to gore.
He shut his eyes and braced for the pain.
It never came. Instead, a hard, supple jerk on his ankle, and the feeling of soaring, tumbling through air.
When his eyes opened again he was in the marsh, arms and legs smeared with pluff mud. The smell rose to his nostrils: an odor of grace, of bliss, of dank life mingling on his limbs, flowing in his veins. A long time passed between standing again and climbing the bank out of the marsh. He listened. No sound save the snapping of shrimp in the creek, the braying of blackbirds. The buzzing of dragonflies. His ears rang. He sniffed.
There was no sign of the boar. The oak stretched marvelously above as always, its creekside arms dipped low over the water. What had happened? That boar had been running for him. His blood should be decked over its snout now, war paint for its tusks. But it was gone, and he’d been flung away into the marsh.
By who? The oak?
Ben stared up at it. Remembered the firm, brittle grasp on his leg. He shivered. Could this day get any stranger?
Then he saw it. A red door in the side of the oak, just tall enough to enter if he ducked. It stood open. Ben whistled.
“Well,” he said aloud. “This doesn’t look sketchy at all.”
Toward the door, stretching like a sign, ran tracks he hadn’t noticed before. Cloven and shallow in the sand, they looked like little flowers stained in places with red and matted fur.
He was drawn by them. On, through the red door, to wherever the boar had gone. The world felt alive. Gone was the hollowness he’d felt minutes ago. His fingertips tingled.
The house, though…? His family. And Aunt Dell…
Ben brushed the thought away. Drew his eyes from the place where his family waited. He couldn’t think of that now. Didn’t want to, with all that had happened. A door that led who knew where? Away from here.
That’s where he needed to be. Away.
He climbed through the low arch, looked back at the light behind him a last time.
* * *
The tunnel wound and curved and bent many times. There was no way to see what it was made of, whether wood or earth or clay or stone. But Ben could feel. It felt like cord, but then like coarse velvet. Then hard and smooth. No branching ways led off from the passage; it was going where it wanted, and taking him with it.
And then, a light. Distant and filtered, but plain to his dark-sharpened eyes.
He climbed into the light of day, and gaped, not believing what he saw. It was no burrow in the mud bank he’d come out into, no neighbor’s yard or drainage gutter. Ben looked back. The opening he’d come through stared back at him through the roots of a fallen tree, another oak, it seemed. Dead and rotten many years. Vines nearly choked the tunnel. And all around him, a forest.
There was something wrong. He heard no sounds of animals, not even a squirrel barking. No sounds of people, either. The place was silent, still. And more: he’d grown up on this island, knew all its secret places, still stole away on summer mornings to play at pirates and Jedis with his friends in the pinewoods behind school.
This was not one of those places.
It felt familiar, and foreign. Palmettos grew here amid oaks, and at their feet dwarf palms stood, but moved in no wind. There was salt in the air. And soft sighing.
No, not sighing: waves. So he was on a sea island, then, with a beach nearby.
That was even more alarming. The sea islands were miles from home — across rivers and stretches of endless salt marsh. The tunnel hadn’t been nearly long enough to go that far.
Ben rubbed his eyes. His friends would never believe it. But they didn’t have to. He could bring them here, show them the tunnel. A new secret to share.
Maybe not Ryan, though.
He stepped forward. Followed the boar tracks, themselves treading a clear path through the maritime wood. The boar had come here, too, then. From the tracks, it still bled.
There was still no trace of animals. Ben walked a while, stopped at times to peer around him, scanning for anything but trees and plants, standing water black as the boar’s eye. He walked on.
An hour passed before anything happened. He was drawing near to the beach, and the waves roared louder as the ground grew sandier and less earthy. Dunes bulged up, ruining the level lay of the land, but the trees near them choked on vines hung too thick to pass that way. He could only look at them from far off, their sandy slopes strew with green and gold dollarweed, red and yellow sand verbena. The path veered off the other way.
Hardly had he felt the first tinge of regret at that when the sound of laughter filled his ears. A high sound, raucous and maniacal, but filled with something else. A sharp desire, maybe. For what?
When he saw the one who laughed, Ben had to grin. It was the first sign of life he’d seen in this place so far, and so singular the man was, so distinct. He looked out of place here in the wild and scrubby island: a tailored blue-grey blazer, black slacks, a white Oxford. His bowtie was black, and the gold pocket square matched his high-fade pompadour.
The young man stopped, seeing Ben. He stared, cleaned off his horn-rims, and laughed again as if Ben were the world’s funniest joke.
Ben’s cheeks burned. His eyes narrowed. “What are you doing?” he asked, put off.
That only made the man laugh harder. He wiped tears from beneath thick lenses. “Fishing,” he managed.
Ben balked. “Fishing? In what?”
The man gestured toward a little creek close by, so small Ben hadn’t noticed it. “In Lari’s Creek.”
“I am.” The man smirked, as if waiting for Ben to catch a punchline.
He scanned the man over again. This Lari looked like a hipster, and from what he knew of them, fishing was the kind of thing they’d love to think about doing but never really do.
“I don’t see a pole,” he observed.
Lari looked him over, a glint in his eye. “There’s more ways to fish than with a pole.”
Ben didn’t know what to say to that. He looked around, scanned the path. The tracks had faded by now. He wasn’t sure how he’d lost them.
“Have you seen a boar?” he asked. “Maybe one that’s bleeding?”
Lari doubled over at that. If there was humor in his question, Ben couldn’t see it. He frowned deeply.
When the man stopped laughing, his response was even more unhelpful.
“Poor Aunt Dell, drinking zinfandel, sipping from a scallop shell, so lit she’s lost her sense of smell! Ell! Ell! Ha ha ha ha ha!”
“How do you know about Aunt Dell?” Ben started.
But the laughing man was already half gone. “Hey!” he yelled after, but the other tramped on, away from the path, deep into the woods toward the dunes.
Ben didn’t want to follow. In a way, he was glad to be rid of the man. He only wished he’d asked for something to eat. His stomach rumbled.
* * *
There was still the matter of what to do, though. Where to go now. He’d lost the boar’s trail, and what if not that had he come through the oak for? In this strange place anything seemed possible; anything and nothing.
Without Lari’s laughter the forest was quiet again. Vines dripped from oak limbs and choked palmetto necks, the dried up remnants jessamine and wisteria. Fans of sabal burst here and there from the ground, little languid suns, though void of sunlight on their leaves. The air hung thick and hot. Was the whole forest asleep? Was he?
No, not asleep. He rubbed the loose skin where his arm and elbow had been scraped by landing in the marsh mud. It still stung, though there was no blood on it he could see.
Well. Nothing to do but just go on.
If not the boar, Ben hoped at least to find the beach. In that, too, he was disappointed. The path veered sharply from the waves again. He could almost see their sparkle through the thick, impenetrable brush as he left them behind.
He could smell marsh again some time later. Its feculent smell comforted him. Surely something would be stirring there, if not in this still and close place. If only he could make his way out of here toward the tidal creeks…
Nearly there. The path turned and curved more, but it went steadily on that way overall. Ben felt a breeze on his cheek, the first he’d felt since coming out of the fallen tree.
“Psst!” a voice hissed in his ear. Ben jumped. His neck craned, but he saw no form or figure.
“Psst!” Again the sound came. This time a hand waved to him from out of the brake.
“Come closer,” the voice beckoned. “No, don’t speak. It ain’t safe in the woods. The plat…he’s abroad.”
“What’s that?” Ben wanted to ask, but swallowed the words. He wondered, but drew closer to the voice. It was a subtle voice, yet honest somehow. Or so he hoped.
Two sabal fans parted, and now he could see the figure better. An old man in a plaid suit of purple and blue, the sleeves below of ivory. His skin loose and earth-brown, his eyes moist and squinted and veined. The man sat cross-legged. Ben did the same.
“This place you in,” the man gestured above their heads, and Ben spotted an odd thing. One hand, his right, was shrunken, the fingers stiff and stubby. “It’s an odd place. An old place.”
Ben nodded. You didn’t need to tell him that.
The man raised both hands how, and the left was holding a stringed instrument by its neck. The bow as well.
“Place like this,” his voice was hoarse, almost a whisper, “you gotta fix on what it is you want, then follow it without lettin’ go.”
Ben nodded again. He didn’t understand, but agreeing felt like the right thing to do at a point like this.
“You know what it is you want?”
What did he want? To go home? No. To find the boar? The beach? Why had he come here?
For adventure. But he didn’t say that. It felt like the wrong answer to give. He nodded a third time.
“Somethin’ comes up, draws your eye from what you want, you gotta push it aside. Remember that.”
It seemed momentous, what the old man was saying, but he didn’t know how to reply. He eyed the fiddle. “Can you play that?” he asked.
“This old thing?” the man grinned, showing broken teeth. “String’s busted. Ain’t worked in years.”
He stood. Dusted his hands off, holding the fiddle and bow in his arm’s crook. Ben rose as well and stared back down the path. The man urged him on. “Remember that,” he said again.
Ben tried to seem grateful, but only felt confused. He smiled. The man waved with the shrunken hand again and slipped back sideways into the brush.
He wandered on. Followed the trail. There was nothing to listen for, no movement to watch for, so he started noting details of the trees and shrubs around them. How they all had waxy coats on their leaves, how they grew so close and locked their branches together.
He was grateful for the shade. The sun beat hard on the island, and he felt the heat in the salt-heavy air, but not directly. Again he wished for food.
The path rounded a bend, skirted a flooded hollow on the forest floor. Ben stopped. An odd sight awaited him. On every tree bordering the water, blue bottles had been placed over the ends of branches. It was an eerie, otherworldly sight.
He wondered who had put them there. And why. Some of his neighbors at home had such things in their yards, put up as protection. He thought so, anyway. He wasn’t sure against what. But never this many… It made him feel both safer and more exposed, more vulnerable to danger lurking near at hand, invisible. He glanced side to side. A place like this should have an orb weaver’s web, if not the orb weaver itself, just to give the full effect. But no, not even that.
Ben strolled around the trees. Flicked one of the bottles with his finger. Its dreamy, distant ring was maybe the first nonhuman sound he’d heard on this island.
In the black water below, bits of duckweed and fallen yellow oak leaves floated, but drifted on no current or breeze. Staring into it like this made him feel sleepy.
He sat back against a smooth palmetto trunk. Closed his eyes. He wouldn’t linger long, but he was tired. Five minutes’ rest couldn’t hurt…
* * *
It was the most surprising thing that had happened since he’d got there. It woke him with its sound, then its sheer force. To call it wind would be underselling by a hundredfold. So strong did it howl in that wild that oaks and palmettos and yaupons bent before it. It was gone nearly before Ben could even try to think what to do.
Had he dreamt it? The forest was silent again and still. More than it had been before, if that were possible. The island seemed aware of him now. Holding its breath to see what he would do.
“This,” a reedy voice stated, “is not the path for you.”
Ben spun around, nearly barreled into the source of the words. The figure looking down its pointed nose at him stood out clean and crisp and bold against the shadows of leaves and trees.
“How,” the man asked, “did you find this place at all?”
He thought about that. He couldn’t look away from the man, who traced with long fingers the pressed fold of his blazer, an unstriped seersucker of the same white he wore head to toe.
Ben struggled for words. He couldn’t explain anything that had happened since throwing stones at the hapless oak.
“A red door opened,” he stammered.
The man tilted his head. He leaned down to peer at Ben, the line of his spine strangely graceful. “The door opened,” he repeated. “But for you? Or for another?”
The boar tracks. He swallowed, remembering them. “Both.”
It wasn’t the answer the man wanted. “Brazen boy! So you tailgated in, did you?”
“Are — are you going to make me go home?”
“Make?” The man started. His head turned sharply, as if he were listening for something. He faced Ben again. “Make? I can’t make you do anything. You’re in this mess now. It’s up to you to get out. Or don’t,” he added as an afterthought.
Ben shuffled his feet on the leaf-littered earth. It was a sullen motion, but he didn’t care. He didn’t know adults could be like this. Furtive, uncanny, so quick to interfere yet giving no help. Usually they did one or the other.
He resented asking, but didn’t know what else to do. “Have you seen a boar around? Maybe with blood on it?”
“I have not,” said the man imperiously. “But you had better turn around while you still can. You won’t find anything good here; no food, no drink worth drinking. This path is not your path.”
But it was the only path Ben had found so far. What else could he do but go on? He waved to the man, who ignored him, and pressed on.
* * *
The forest had changed while Ben had slept. He could see that now. The trees still stood, or all those he could see anyway, but the brush and vines and dwarf palmettos had been flattened by the gust that had woken him, tearing over the island.
He’d slept too long. He didn’t know what, but something told him it was true. It felt like hours since he’d laid his head against the palm… But then, the day seemed just as bright as before.
He scanned the canopy for the sun, but found no hint of it. The light was strange, as if it didn’t scatter quite right. As if the sunlight shone from all directions at once.
A dream was coming back to him now, from the depths of his sleep. He thought he’d seen a great throng of people far off, away from the path, gathered in a circle, dancing or singing around a fire or something. It wasn’t night, which was even stranger. He couldn’t see their faces or make out what kind of clothing they wore.
But there were few people on this island, and he’d never seen any who wasn’t alone.
Ben looked back. He couldn’t see the man in white anymore. The path was bending toward the marsh side again, but he could tell it wouldn’t do so for long. He was nearing the far side of the island, where tides came in and mingled with the creeks and the river. Soon he’d be hearing waves again, whichever way the path veered.
Still no hint of boar tracks. He was scanning the ground for them when he heard a low groan.
“Ohhhh, who’s that? Oh, can’t you leave a soul to her rest?”
Ben stared. An old lady rocked in a frail wicker chair, just where a patch of sun lit on her through a break in the trees. Behind her, the marsh gleamed not far off.
“Oh!” she opened her eyes and saw Ben. “Oh, it’s just a poor, precious child! What’s your name, child?”
No word left his lips. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t tell what. He stepped closer.
“Come here, child. Come nearer. Come closer.”
Her skin was dark, sunbaked, leathery. She smiled a toothy smile, reached out her hand.
“Come, child. Come here, come closer to me.”
The dusky green of her dress billowed loose in the sunlight as she leaned forth. “Come, chile. This way. No, closer. Closer, chile. Come closer.”
Ben stopped at the edge of the glade. He felt the sun’s heat reach for him even hear, still in the shade. The woman’s lips pursed. Her frown echoed the sharp angle of her jawline.
A tear fell from her eye. A single salty drop.
Something in that tear terrified him. He turned, tore away through the wood as fast as he could make his legs go. Not fast enough.
He ran till the breath in his lungs failed. He’d been running blind; luckily, he was still on the path. And then he saw it. Not just the trail, but the boar tracks again. Red and matted with sticky fur. He was close now.
* * *
Ben heard waves breaking. He stood at the forest’s edge, at last. The sea shimmered its silvery scales at him, spun hues of blue and green and sunset pink at him, though no sun could be seen still, setting or otherwise. Its foam was cast of pearl. The sand all around of pale gold.
Still the boar tracks ran on. What was he waiting for? The animal was hurt, surely no danger to him. Nor could it have gone much farther.
What was he waiting for?
That dull, hollow feeling had filled him again. He recognized it from hours before, when he’d waited at the edge of his yard, listless and surly. He’d thought he was leaving all of that behind, following the boar. Following adventure. But it was only waiting for him here the whole time.
Nowhere to run away to now. Not even an oak nor marsh stones to throw.
The sand was soft underfoot. It yielded to his steps, a balm to his heart. It was hard to go on. But he went.
The boar tracks ran out, but blood drops still led away across the sand. He followed.
Then stopped. There she was, standing at the edge of the beach, the waves caressing her bare feet. But she wasn’t a boar anymore.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Ben Brooke,” his Aunt Delia said. “For a long, long time.”
He couldn’t speak. What had he expected to find here? Not this. Hot beads dripped from his eyes. He knew he had to say something. But there were no words.
He finally stammered, “What…what’s wrong with….”
It was a stupid thing to say, and he didn’t know what he meant by it anyway. With what? With her? Or him? Or with life itself?
Aunt Dell smiled. “Oh, Ben, nothing is wrong. Nothing is wrong in all the world.”
He didn’t know how to answer. Her words above all seemed so plainly wrong; yet she seemed to really believe them. Ben sniffed. She touched his shoulder, her hand more solid now than it had felt in all the weeks of her long disease.
“What’s going to happen now?” he asked.
“Now I take you home.”
“Then you will do what you have to do.”
He peered up at her as they walked along the shore together. “Does that mean…say goodbye to you?”
Now it was Dell who shed a tear. “No, Ben,” she smiled. “It’s too late for that.”
Waves lapped at his feet, colder than he’d have guessed, as hot as the day was. A whelk caught his eye in the wet sand, whole and unbroken. He would have picked it up any other day.
“Then what do I have to do?”
She stopped again. Knelt before him, studied his amber eyes. “If I told you here,” she said, “you’d never stop crying. If I told you now, you’d never stop smiling.”
He waited for more from her, but that was all that came. A long time passed; somehow, not long enough.
Then she stood. Ben followed as she led him into the ocean. Ankle deep, then knee deep. He sucked in a breath when it came up to his crotch, but didn’t let her see his shudder.
He was up to his shoulders now. She turned, held his arm as he paddled with the other to stay afloat, tasting the salt sea. She pushed his head underneath. His eyes stung.
* * *
His head broke water. He sputtered, coughed, and rubbed his eyes. Dog-paddled to shore. Aunt Dell was gone, but so was the empty, trackless beach. He saw houses, little hotels, a pier stretched out over the water. Families sunbathed on towels. He was home.
Or near enough. He knew where he was now, at least, and that was more than he could say of the day behind him. People stared as he reached shore alone, drenched in his normal clothes. Let them. They didn’t seem real. More like people from a dream.
Gulls cried overhead. A crab skittered by his foot. Above his head, the sun was almost setting.