“Is something the matter, Carol?” asked Michael.
The old man’s demeanor abruptly changed. “No, no,” he said, his hand lifting from Rachel’s face. “Nothing at all.” He patted Rachel affectionately on the shoulder. “It’s good to meet you three. And welcome to our happy family. Whatever misfortunes have befallen us in our past are forgotten here; this is a place of salvation and solace. You can be happy here. Come,” he said, gesturing to the open door of the cottage. “Come in and we’ll show you around the place. Sandra’s made some lentil stew; you must be very hungry.”
And to be honest, they were that, very much.
Once they’d finished eating the hearty vegetable stew (Elsie hadn’t let up until every last morsel had been removed fro
m the bowl, with the aid of a spongy piece of sourdough bread), the three girls sat back in their chairs, reveling in the glow of their satiated hunger. Carol had sat with them, merrily laughing at the sounds of their eating. “Nice to hear appreciative eaters,” he said. The table cleared, Carol called for his pipe, which was dutifully brought by a young boy who’d been collecting vegetable scraps for the compost. As he packed it, he spoke in the direction of the three new arrivals.
“So, I suppose we’ll be needin to find you a job among us,” he said. “But don’t worry: We won’t be workin you like you’re used to. Everybody here works to their own ability. We’re not slave drivers. As long as the house is properly functioning, everybody’s happy.”
Michael, who sat next to Martha, intruded on the conversation with pride. “It really works,” he said. “Nobody has incentive to be lazy. We each contribute what we’re best at, whatever that may be.”
“Sandra makes a fine stew,” said Carol. “It’s a real passion of hers. She’s got a gift fer it. Likewise, Cynthia is a marvelous painter, that one. So she gets put to work providin the artwork you see around the house.”
Elsie, licking her lips of the last drops of the delicious stew, surveyed the walls of the house; each was veritably covered with oil landscapes, on canvas, set in makeshift tree-branch frames.
“Michael, Peter, and Cynthia are handy with a snare, so they’re out evenings and early mornings tracking game for the dinner table. And young Miles is a marvelous storyteller; he gets the young ones into bed early.” Carol puffed at his pipe, letting curlicues of smoke drift into the rafters of the cottage.
“It all fits very nicely; we’re a working family,” said Michael, tearing off a hunk of bread. Two younger girls were washing dishes in the basin; they sang as they worked, and their high, lilting voices rang through the house. “We’re content here,” he said. He then reached into his pocket and retrieved a little white clay pipe, and, borrowing some brown tobacco from Carol’s pouch, he packed it full and began to smoke it. This was met by looks of shock from the new arrivals. Michael checked their reactions with pride.
Martha was the first to comment. “What are you doing?”
Michael only shrugged. “We can do what we want here. No parents to bug us about what we should or shouldn’t do. It’s a dream!” He puffed at his pipe, shooting little circles of smoke into the air.
Rachel, who’d lapsed into silence after eating her fill, finally spoke up. “But what is this place?” she asked. “Why are you all here? Why are we all here?”
Swiveling his body to face Rachel, Carol leaned back in his chair. It let out an aching creak. “This is the Periphery, dear,” he said. “An ancient magic, woven into the trees by the old Mystics. It was built to keep folks like you and me out. And you might as well get used to it, ’cause we’re stuck here.”
Martha had let her spoon clatter from her fingers to the tabletop. She apologized for the noise before saying, “You said what? Magic?”
Carol tugged again at his pipe a few times before speaking. “Indeed. I can only tell you what I know. And I know this: When it was decided, some centuries ago, that the Wood and the Outside could no longer live in peaceful harmony, a Binding spell was placed on the ribbon of trees surrounding the Wood; so that every Outsider, when attempting to cross over, would be lost in a veritable maze of trees. Every turn would resemble the last, each square of land doubling itself into infinity. What’s more, time itself remains at a standstill, and while the sun sets and the moon rises and does so in its own patterns, the days never shift into the next.”
Michael smiled at Martha when this last thing was said. “Get it?” he said. “We never get old.”
The three girls were speechless as they tried to wrap their heads around the implication.
“That’s insane,” said Rachel.
“Indeed,” added Carol. “It’s as if we are all simply suspended in time here. Never feeling the ravages of the seasons’ turns.”
“How long have you been here?” asked Martha.
“Oh, years, I suppose. Though when the effects of time have no sway, one stops paying quite so much attention to its passage.”
“But how do you know so much about the … what did you call it … Periphery? And the Impassable Wilderness?” Rachel ventured.
“I had my moment,” said Carol. “I walked among them. The people of South Wood. And then I was discarded.”
“South Wood?” asked Elsie. “What’s that?”
“And why were you discarded?” This was from Rachel.
Carol laughed a craggy, wheezing laugh before taking a few puffs from his pipe and continuing. “Girls, so many questions. First, South Wood is the populous place, where the Mansion and the seat of government is. There’s a whole world there. And the entire place is bloomin with strange and magical things. Things that’d make your eyes pop out your skull. Anyhow: I was called up. From the Outside. And when they were done with me, they sent me away.”
“Sent you away?” This came from Rachel. She’d pushed her hair back from her face and was staring at the old man intently.
Carol grumbled and chewed at the tip of his pipe. “Yup. Sent me away. Won’t go into it; but somes in South Wood feel like this—the Periphery, mind—is as good a place as any to discard the old, used-up rubbish. Not bein of the Wood, mind, all’s it took was to throw me in here, and I was good as dead to them.”