Michael, his brow fretted, gave Elsie and Rachel a look that clearly discouraged them from delving any deeper.
“So’s anyway,” continued Carol. “Here I am. In my new home. In my purgatory. But least I got company. Must be two years now, when the first one came over. Little Edmund Carter. I was just sitting on the porch, talkin to the dogs—which were my only source of companionship and conversation at the time—when up he comes over the ridge. Been wanderin for days, I suppose. Some kids find us sooner than others. Took him in; gave him some food. We been growin as a family ever since.”
“But …,” began Elsie. “There has to be a way out. We can’t all be stuck here, forever?”
“Yeah,” said Rachel. “What about the people who’ve made it out—Unthank said something about them. Survivors of the Impassable Wilderness, he called them.”
“Well,” Carol said, shifting in his chair, “I ain’t never heard of that. Could be myth. Legend. Could be true, though, I s’pose. Though we spent a lot of time lookin for a way out, and we’re all here as witness to that not necessarily workin out, if you get my figure.”
Michael interjected, “And we’re happy here. You’ll come to see it that way, too. No rules. Do what you like. Sleep all day, if it’s what you want. Stay up late. Tell dirty jokes!” As if to punctuate the idea, Michael let loose a curse word, apropos of nothing, that made Elsie blush a deep violet.
Carol laughed. “Yes, I don’t cotton much to the idea of movin at this point. We’ve got a good thing here. In the Outside, I was a loner. In the Wood, among those strange peoples, I was ostracized. Here, I am a father to an ever-growin batch of good kids, all of ’em needin a place to live and some folks to call a family.”
Elsie, out of the corner of her eye, saw Martha slowly nod in agreement. Rachel had seen it too; she spoke up. “You mean, you’re all just going to stay here? Just like that?”
Michael shrugged. “As if we have a choice.” His pipe was making lazy strings of smoke curl into the air.
Rachel stanched a laugh. “You guys are crazy,” she said. Elsie glared at her. “And what about this magical world? All in here, in the I.W.?”
“It’s true,” said Michael.
“I think it’s a load of crap,” said Rachel.
“Why do you think you’re stuck here?” This was Carol, who was looking at Rachel in a way that might be described as “intently,” if it was possible for a blind man to do so. His wooden eyes lolled in his head as he turned.
“I don’t know,” said Rachel. “I’ve only been in here for a little bit. There ha
s to be a way out.”
“There’s no way out,” said Michael. “We know.”
“Yeah,” Martha interjected. “I’d be inclined to believe them.” She then reached into her back pocket and pulled out a large piece of paper that’d been folded into little squares. Carefully, she began to flatten it out, revealing a large hand-drawn map. The first corner to be revealed had handwriting on it that read: “Impassable Wilderness, conjecture.”
“That’s the map from Unthank’s office!” exclaimed Rachel.
“Uh-huh,” said Martha. “I stole it.” She looked at everyone present in a proud way.
“Michael,” said Carol, “what is this? What has the girl brought?”
“It’s a map,” Michael said as more of Martha’s bounty was revealed. “It’s … the Wood, all right. It’s got the mansion, just like you said. And there’s a big tree drawn on the north part.”
“See?” said Elsie to her sister. “He does know what he’s talking about.” She reached her hand across the table and touched one of Carol’s ancient knuckles. She felt an ingrained suspicion, long harbored, welling up in her stomach, like something she’d always known to be true was finally being confirmed to her. What’s more, she knew there was a clue to her brother’s disappearance, packed deep into Carol’s story. “Tell us more about this place.”
Carol smiled. He tapped out the remnant ash of his pipe into his hand, scattered it onto the knobby boards of the floor, and spoke. He told the girls about the Wood, about Wildwood and the North and South Wood. About the animals and the humans living among one another. About the Mystics. He told them what he knew, which was limited, but nonetheless was enough to upset the collected worldviews of the three girls in such a way that they would never see the world in the same light again.
To Curtis, it looked like a coiled snake. Prue disagreed; she said it seemed aboriginal. Curtis had asked what “aboriginal” meant, and Prue said it had something to do with Australia. The native people there. Curtis replied curtly that he knew what aboriginal meant but he just wondered what on earth something aboriginal would be doing in the middle of the Pacific Northwest, to which Prue responded that there were a lot stranger things happening around them—a lot stranger—and that she’d given up trying to piece together how and why things occurred in this place. Curtis didn’t have a response to this observation. One thing was certain: The design that had been engraved on the keystone of the tunnel’s tall archway had undoubtedly been made by somebody.
“I’m getting a real ‘snakes ahead’ vibe from it,” suggested Septimus, shivering.
The design was a simple coil, carved into the rock. Below the archway, a tunnel, perhaps the height of two very tall men, extended beyond sight into darkness.
“I’m not sure,” answered Prue. “Seems to me like these sorts of things mean, like, the circle of life. Stuff like that.”
“Wonder who made it,” mused Curtis.