In the darkest grove of a forest where no light ever shines, the air is always chill, even in August, and no path of root or rock or footfall is ever straight, there is a winding tree. They call it a winding tree, those that say they’ve seen it, because it’s turned like the twist of a rope, spiraling upward like a snake charmer’s trick, toward a blackened sky. But the tree isn’t the thing that interests little Lyn Fuller. Lyn wants to know where the staircase leads.
Some years ago, her older brother went on a lark in the woods with still older friends, more of a dare than a lark, and he’d told her that night what he didn’t tell any of the boys. He’d said that tearing the moss from the base of the tree, a trophy to prove his manhood, he’d found a latch. He’d scratched and torn and scraped his hands pulling up piles of green and grey until the latch was a door, the door was opened on a narrow hinge, and below the door were dimly glowing stairs of ochre and crimson leading too far down to see, and bounded on either side by rails of the same mixed colors. He’d sent his lucky stone down the steps, the one he never left home without, and it popped and skipped until the echoes drowned it in the subterranean distance. He didn’t say, but he didn’t have to, that he thought he didn’t have the courage to go down after his charm.
She didn’t believe him until he turned his pockets inside out, and even then she crept into his room that night and checked under his pillow when he slept. The stone would be there, keeping him safe from monsters, if he’d had it at all. Or maybe that’s what growing up meant, you cast your luck down a well of steps, taken all at once, and stopped believing that the dark at the end of them was anything other than absence of light. But boys always faked growing up faster than girls. Boys called themselves “men” as soon as their middle school coaches used that word, and girls kept saying “girls” sometimes all their lives, always half in and half out of childhood. Or so she guessed. Her aunts still said things like “just us girls” and “girls night out” and “dear man, let the girls talk”.
When David went missing he had just stopped letting people call him Davey, and Lyn told herself for a long time that he wouldn’t have gone back to those stairs. He said it was difficult to even find the grove, and all the trees wound worse than Hawthorns, making it hard to know which was which, and probably no one would ever see those stairs again, because he’d shut the door, covered it again with patches of the moss, and it would likely grow over again in a week, as thick and wet as that place was. For a long time Lyn was scared to try, because that would mean he really had gone back there, and that would mean he might be dead, since he never came back, and that would mean she might die too. It was more than a long time, it was years.
But now she was older, old enough to stop counting her age in halves, and she was sure he had gone back to the grove. Something had drawn him. She didn’t know it with her head, she knew with her feelings and the prickings of memory, and she knew it in dreams, and she knew it because David had *seemed* drawn, the way your soul was drawn out of you and held somewhere you couldn’t find your way back to – the way she’d learned happens with real zombies, in a book on voodoo that she wasn’t allowed to read but had, because she’d fallen asleep in the library stacks one night and had the place to herself after hours.
Her mom had punished her harshly for that. She’d been too rough and temperamental ever since Dad left, and Dad had left precisely because he couldn’t live with the memory of his only man-child, lost and never found, and stay in a town where his power to do anything about it was thwarted by too much misery and mystery. It seemed like men couldn’t stay or they couldn’t stay men in the way they needed to if they couldn’t find the answers to certain questions.
She didn’t know why she never told them to look for the grove. She had only now come to such a sure conclusion about what had happened to her big brother, and only in the way you were sure you liked a boy or didn’t like some green vegetable you hadn’t tried. You knew with your soul, and she knew she still had one, but David’s was still out there somewhere, even if his body had fallen lifelessly away from it.
More importantly, she knew because of the stone. He would have wished for that stone, especially when he was having trouble competing in sports, when he’d watched his friends beat him out for places on the team, and when finally he stopped leaving his bedroom most of the time and didn’t even try to talk to girls. She knew, because of the way his voice was all wet, even if his face was dry, when he called her “little sis” instead of Lyn, long after he was pretending not to care about her anymore.
She knew because she had found the grove, and was standing under the blasphemous trunk of that gnarled, ancient tree, and the base was surrounded by such a plantation of moss that it was as if the forest were hiding something.
She knew because she had torn at the moss until her fingers bled, and she held the latch in her hand, and it was right where David had said it would be. Or rather, where he’d said it was, because he had made her promise to never go looking, on her life – pinky swear and hope to die, and pretty pink stuffed kitten with her if she ever went searching for the place. But she had searched, for a week she had searched, and maybe it was true that she was damned for breaking a promise like that, but her kitten, Foxy, had long since been donated to those less fortunate, even though she now felt no one was less fortunate than her or David or her Dad, or even her Mom, tough as she had been the past few years.
Lyn begins to mentally trace the outline of the door. Her brother had been so relieved to tell someone the very night he’d made her swear never to go and never to repeat, that he had actually cried a little, putting his head in her hands and shaking, until he rose with a blank face and shoved her and said not to believe everything she hears. She was certain he hadn’t lied to her then and certain he wouldn’t make up a thing like the size and shape of the door, since everything else proved to be true.
Foresight was her special gift, even if she did fall asleep in libraries, but it was a fickle gift. She’d brought a box knife and a flash light, but not a shovel, and so it was slow going and painful. The most important thing she learned about the grove was the complete absence of any sound. Light fled and echoes slept. Only the ground seemed capable of life there, where even the air was like a morgue at night. Not that she’d ever been to a morgue, or needed to be. The funeral was held with an empty casket. If her brother was anywhere, he was down a red stair case reaching for his luck in the dark in the ground, and nothing could be colder than her regret for not showing up sooner.
* verb tense inconsistencies intended (or so we’d have you believe)