‘I shouldn’t be here’, he thought, as he touched the wooden frame of the small house door.
‘I shouldn’t be here’, he imagined his father’s strict expression, as he carefully stepped on the threshold.
‘I shouldn’t be here’, he remembered George’s terrified face, as he stepped inside and breathed the heavy air, the smell of incense, the dim light, the pair of green-blue eyes, looking on him, patient.
He had wanted to run for the first meters. He could not stand the look of the others on his back, especially Mariana’s. He pretended a steady pace and an erected neck, not turning, not glancing, forcing his feet to walk regularly. He could hear his heart pumping in his throat. He wanted to run, but he went on, concentrating on the carpet of roots and leaves. On for various minutes, he could not count; on until he thought he was far enough – and then he turned. Around him, nothing but the high majestic trunks. Already.
Tom stood still. Only then did he start looking around. The deep forest, the prohibited one. Tall beech trees were hiding the sky, not yet dense enough to keep out the light. The undergrowth was developing, mostly ferns and some bramble. He started walking again, thinking of Mariana, picturing her playing with the others, thinking about him. The cadenced thud of his own pace was calming him down. He picked up a twig and started rubbing it delicately on his thigh at every step. The forest was quiet, the singing of titmice reached him louder than ever. He breathed in and got his phone out of his trousers pocket. No messages from his parents so far. He feared the moment he would lie to them, in case the others didn’t manage to convince them he was fine, sleeping at one’s or the other’s place. It was only three days. He would be okay. No text from Mariana, either. Tom put his phone back into his pocket and went on walking, balancing his rucksack on his shoulders.
This year, there had been a lot of silence. Conversations breaking off as if they had been standing on a cliff edge. Looks of mourn, quiet glances of understanding, of rage, that the ‘kids’ were expected not to grasp. But they were no longer kids, Tom and Jack were to turn ten, just the same age as George. Except for Mariana who, too, next year will turn George’s age, and the year after, also Peggy and also Jules. Then George would be the youngest, even though he was the eldest.
Tom shivered. The summer air was chilly in the shade. He could smell the damp soil and he checked sometimes for footprints. He knew that on the right, at some point, there would be a brook, on which he counted on for water. He sat on a big root emerging from the ground and ate one of the sandwiches he’d brought. He checked his phone; Mariana had sent him a voice message, which he tried to download, but his data was already gone. He prayed no one would worry. He was old enough now. He could do it; he must do it. For himself and for the others. His birthday was in one week.
The forest started looking always the same to him: beech and lime trees, sporadic birches, sometimes an oak. Every now and then, he heard a rustle in the distance, of some small animal, probably a badger, running away from him. When the light started to fade, noises raised in volume. Darkness fell rapidly, under the foliage, and did not leave him time to realise. Tom had thought of climbing a tree to sleep on, and he started walking fast, forcing his eyes in the increasing darkness. The moon, intermittent above the leaves crown, was too young to shed barely any light. A big oak, with branches not too high, was standing in a distance, but Tom froze. A young boar was in his way. He should not be there, it was too late, but anyway, if it was there, its mum would come soon. Tom stood and tried to think. He picked up a small stone. He threw it away on his right. The small boar lifted its head, hesitated, then went away in the opposite direction. When it was gone, Tom ran to the oak and climbed it fast. He could breathe again, but certainly not sleep.
At daybreak, he was exhausted. He ate another of his sandwiches and climbed down the oak. His feet were aching for the walk, his back for the sturdy wood. He started walking, trying to overcome the burning sensation in his eyes, with only one thought in his mind. To find the new plant and come back, and hug his mum, and sleep in his bed. It had been a common decision. Before being ten, they would have a test. And if they won, on their birthdays they would have no bad surprises. It was a game. But Tom was starting to realise, it was also not a game.
Around midday he reached the brook, he sat down and rested his feet in the water for a while. It was cold, but pleasant on the worn-out skin. He filled his water bottle and looked around for the new plant. But all he could see were common undergrowth, reeds further on, and a couple of toads that splashed into the water at his passage. He felt the hurry of accomplishing his mission. He could not come back with whatever shrub and claim it was exotic, or special, or rare. Maybe, if he did not find anything else.
But he knew he was almost at half of his time, and he should soon have to double back. He walked now almost folded in two, to better check the ground, under the weight of his rucksack, of his exhaustion. Maybe he should give up. It had just been a stupid idea. They should have thought of a different way to prove they had accomplished their task. But how would he show the others, now? How would he make sure that on his birthday– Tom tried to cast that thought away, but in his mind, the souvenirs of George’s birthday had started to emerge. The chocolate cake with ten candles prepared by his mum. His smile and his laughs, yes, stop, stop here. The presents. Stop. The red-wrapped box. Stop! Tom brought his palms to his temples, his eyes closed. George’s smile freezing. Tears filled Tom’s eyes. He turned back and ran. He ran across the wood, fast at the beginning, clumsier and clumsier then, as he got tired, so tired he fell, he got his head in his hands, he could not stop the tears.
When he woke up, the light was paler. Tom stood up and realised he did not know in which direction to go. He could find no footprints of his. He could not hear the brook. He felt no strength was left in his body, but he had to move, he picked the direction that might be more or less the good one. He was careful but could not distinguish one noise from another, it seemed to him that a lot of creatures were whispering, moving back and forth, invisible. The smell of wet soil was strong, but it hid that of beech leaves, and that of acorns, and that of fur. He tried to concentrate, but details of all nature were capturing his attention. And yet, he could see no plant that he had never seen before.
Just before dusk, he found another oak he could climb. He had no idea where he was. Some brambles were there, with dark juicy blackberries. Tom got a plastic bag out of his rucksack and started picking them. He savoured one, and their sugary juice dropped on his sneakers, a dark red spot upon their grey canvas. At that moment, he heard a rustle in the vegetation, an animal that must be big. He ran to the oak and climbed as high as he could. The noise was closer and closer, irregular. The light was dim now, shadows starting to hide big portions of his view. Suddenly, the noise was very close, behind him, he turned, looked down, a pair of green-blue eyes were staring from beneath. He fell, senseless, but made no noise.
The swinging of everything made him recover his senses, he tried to free himself, but strong arms were holding him.
“Be quiet. I’ll put you down if you don’t run”, said a voice, vibrating through his body. “You don’t know where to go”, it added.
Tom looked around but could see little. He stopped kicking, and after a couple of seconds he was put down on his feet. He had an impulse to run, he was caught again.
“What do you want from me”, he asked.
“To help you”.
Tom turned and looked in those troubling eyes. They hinted at their right, and Tom saw a small and snug dwelling, built-in wood. Like those of fairy tales.
Tom followed the tall figure with a long dark cloak walking towards the house. He could think of nothing, except that he shouldn’t be there.
The interior was lightened by feeble candles, illuminating bits of red wallpaper. A small fireplace was on the opposite side of the room, a big pot hanging above the fire, and next to it, an old upholstered armchair. He sat down, turning to check that there was no key on the door he had entered. He made himself comfortable, while he heard the noises of copper plates, and of water. The warmth and the stale air made him sleepy, he closed his eyes.
“You can call me Moira.”
A large-knuckled hand was holding a tray with a mug. Tom took it carefully. It smelled like all the odours of the forest, condensed and sweet.
“What is it?”
“An infusion. It will make you feel better.”
Moira’s voice was quiet but intense. Double, as if two notes from different scales were resonating, dyadic yet harmonised. Tom did not know what to think. The infusion was too hot to drink it.
“What do you want from me?”
Moira sat on a chair in front of him. Those eyes that had been frightening were looking at him peacefully but straight, in a way that he could barely stand. Thick eyelashes closed and opened again. Some light brown hairs were escaping an elaborated hairstyle. A purple dress was wrapped around a strong chest, and it finished where high boots began. Moira’s gaze had not changed.
“Who are you?”
“I live here”, was the lacunary answer, lengthily pronounced.
Tom brought the mug to his lips. He blew on the contents, fruity and intense, he took a good sip. It felt warm and refreshing at the same time. The muscles of his back relaxed.
“I will prepare you something to eat”. Moira stood up, went to the kitchenette.
Tom knew he should not trust her. He knew it, and yet, he was starting to realise, he had never felt this way. He thought of the dark forest outside, and of the past two days, of the terror that had won him. He drank another sip. The idea of running away was fading in his mind.
Not long after, Moira put on his knees a dish of saucy ratatouille, eggs and rice. The smell of cumin and tomato sauce made Tom close his eyes and inhale deeper. He started devouring the food, his head low on his dish.
“What were you doing in the forest? It’s dangerous”, said Moira.
Tom stopped chewing. Lifting his gaze, his mouth still full,
“I don’t want to be like George”, he said.
Moira respected the silence, then said,
“George had never come here”.
Tom sighed, suddenly discomforted.
“But I’m not accomplishing my mission. I haven’t found any new plant. If I fail, I will be like George.”
“What happened to him has nothing”, Moira halted, took a deep breath. “What happened to him?”
Moira saw Tom’s eyes opening wide, letting fear in. He had stopped eating.
“He… Someone… Last summer, on his birthday, he… he received a frightening present and started crying. His parents couldn’t calm him down. I don’t know what was in the red box, they didn’t show us, they didn’t even tell us who it was from. And this summer, he’s not here anymore. He died in March.”
Moira’s green-blue eyes were on him, understanding, sympathetic, lovingly.
“My birthday is in six days. This is why I was in the wood. It’s a test, all of us will do it.”
Tom tried not to cry but could not help it. Moira took his plate, put it away, and stood behind Tom’s armchair. He felt a hand on his head, caressing him, a touch strangely both nervous and maternal, powerful and sweet.
“Do not worry. You are here now, you are safe.”
Moira extended a muscled arm, and let a pebble fall onto Tom’s palm. He brought it closer to his eyes: it was purple in the transparence, perfectly smooth, it almost shone in the fire’s light.
“Don’t tell anyone you met me. Don’t tell anyone there is anybody here at all. And keep this stone always with you. It will help you and give you strength, and nothing bad will happen to you. And tomorrow, when you wake up, cross the garden and reach the broken part of the fence. You’ll be in the right direction to go home. You’ll be there at dinner time.”
Moira’s hands touched his head softly, suddenly all the tiredness of the past days submerged him, and he fell sound asleep.
On the next morning, he woke with the light, the whole house smelled like blackberry jam. He looked for Moira, he called aloud, but he got no answer. The small table in the kitchenette had bread, butter and jam ready on it, and a kettle with warm tea. He ate fast, took his rucksack, heavy with the packed food and freshwater, and before leaving the house, he checked the purple stone was in his pocket. Outside, the green reflected the summer light everywhere. He saw the broken part of the fence. He walked there, he touched a wooden log, he stopped. At the base of the fence, a tiny flower had captured his attention. A delicate, purple crown on a long stem with elongated leaves. He had never seen one alike. He carefully picked it, he smiled and thanked Moira in his mind, and climbed over the fence. As he walked, the singing of titmice seemed to follow the rhythm of his steps.