“Oh, come on,” said Martha. “I’m as old as you are. Besides, everyone’s talking. All the kids know. You found a road. One that’s probably outside the Periphery.”
Carol frowned. “They should be counseled to keep their expectations low. This ‘road’ sighting has not been confirmed.”
“Well, you ought to do that soon,” said Martha. “Everyone’s awake and waiting to hear the news.”
“Cynthia, would you mind staying behind and speaking to the rest of the children? Explain the situation to them.” Carol shifted in his worn shoes; Elsie gripped his elbow as he eased down the steps to the grass of the yard. He sensed Cynthia’s disappointment; she looked at Michael and gave a kind of huffy sigh. “Cynthia, do this thing. The young ones look up to you.”
“Okay, Carol,” she said finally.
“Martha, you’ll round out our reconnaiss
ance party. Quickly, let’s be on the move. I don’t walk as fleetly as I used to, and we don’t want this road disappearing before we can get to it, do we?” Carol winked one of his wooden eyes at Elsie.
And so, they set out.
They soon arrived in the cottonwood clearing, the small meadow where Rachel, Elsie, and Martha had first spotted the pack of dogs. From there, Elsie took up the lead, winding through the soaring conifers and the bare, twiggy fingers of the drooping maples. They moved slowly, hampered by Carol’s careful movements, and Elsie, in her enthusiasm, would find herself getting too far ahead of the rest of the party. Finally, she decided it would be best if she just stayed at Carol’s side. She took Rachel’s spot at his elbow; Martha had taken his other. Michael, his pipe firmly clenched in his teeth, followed behind.
There was no rabbit to lead their way now, and though Elsie had found the road twice without the animal’s aid, it was still tricky to find the spot where her vine-tied tree trunks began. At one point, at the edge of a shallow culvert, Elsie had to stop and reflect. “This wasn’t part of it,” she said. “I don’t remember this part.”
A resigned puff of air sounded from the back of the group. It was Michael. “At what point,” he said, somewhat caustically, “do we call this off? Or are we going to be wandering the Periphery all day? To be honest, following the girl’s lead, I’m a little concerned we’re going to stumble into some undiscovered bit and be stuck there forever.”
“She knows where she’s going,” Rachel struck back. “I saw it. With my own eyes.” She then turned to her sister. “C’mon, Els, think. Which way?”
“Patience, children,” chided Carol. “No sense in bickering over it. There is no shame in having fallen prey to an illusion. This forest offers up many tricks.”
“It wasn’t an illusion,” said Elsie, before grabbing Carol’s elbow and drawing him away from the edge of the culvert. “This way. I’m sure of it.”
When the first fir sapling came into view, its midsection neatly knotted with a green ivy stalk, Elsie didn’t take a single look behind her. “There it is!” she shouted, and began urging Carol along. Even his mutterings of caution could not dissuade her from pulling him by the elbow quickly through the weave of trees. They now came in a steady succession, these waymarked trees; as soon as she thought she’d lost the way, another one would hove into view in the distance. After a time, a rise in the terrain appeared, and, reaching its crest, Carol let out a cry of surprise to find his feet resting firmly on the gravel surface of the road.
Elsie, nearly out of breath, smiled widely. “You see?” she said. “It’s not an illusion!”
Carol let out a loud guffaw, despite himself. He patted Elsie fondly on the head, his face beaming. “You weren’t kidding, were you?” He took a deep breath, as if inhaling the air for the first time. “How far does it go? Can you describe it?”
Summoning all her descriptive prowess, Elsie began breathlessly cataloging every detail of the road. “It’s long. It’s all snowy. It looks like it’s been driven at some point; look, there are little wheel tracks underneath last night’s fall of snow. And—I don’t know what those are—hoof prints, maybe. Horses.” She took in the scene behind her. “It kinda snakes along. It’s like a ribbon, or something. Like a country road. It reminds me of … We rented a cabin one summer, my family. In the Sisters Wilderness. The road that led to the cabin looked like this. An awful lot like this. And there’s the stone thing, across the road, with the picture on it. A picture of a bird and an arrow. Just like we told you.”
Carol remained smiling through Elsie’s long monologue. “Indeed,” he said. “Indeed. This was no illusion. This was no trick of the light. You, Elsie, have a gift.”
“Well, my second-grade teacher did say I described stuff well.”
“No,” corrected Carol. “Your gift is the ability to pass through the Periphery. You are not beholden to its laws. You, Elsie, are of Woods Magic.”
The wind whistled along Elsie’s ribbon of road. The girl was at a loss for words. She heard a noise from the side of the road; looking over, she saw her sister break through the bracken, her jumpsuit streaked with mud. “Sorry,” she said. “I kinda fell back there. Glad I found you.” She paused, taking in the two figures’ silent pose. “What’s up? You found the road. That’s good.”
“Is it Rachel?” asked Carol. “It’s your sister!”
“Yes,” was all Elsie managed to say.
“She too!” said the ebullient old man. “I knew it! As soon as I saw—or felt—you both. I could just feel it. Couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but now it’s clear. Clear as crystal. Woods Magic, the both of you. It runs in your family—it must! But how …” Here he paused as the corners of his mouth folded into a ponderous frown. “How did you manage to …” His hand slipped to the fabric of his coat at the elbow, to the place where Elsie’s hand had so recently been. “You—you—” he stammered. “You walked me in. You brought me with you. By touch. By touching.” The smile returned to his lips. “That’s it! That’s been it all along!”
The old man, unanchored from his helpers, began stumbling in a little celebratory dance in the middle of the road. “How simple!” he called, his voice reverberating in the air. “So incredibly simple.” His hands flew out, searching for a body with which to connect. “Elsie, Rachel,” he called. “Come here! Come here!”
The two of them obeyed the old man’s call; he grabbed their shoulders and gave them an affectionate squeeze. “You’ve saved us!” he said. “Who knew? Who ever knows what they possess in the deepest depths of their being?”
Elsie stood with a smile plastered across her face. There were so many things streaming through her head, it was nearly impossible to get them all straight. What did it mean, this Woods Magic? And how could it run in their family? Immediately, her mind flashed to her brother, Curtis. Necessarily, he must be of Woods Magic as well. The idea unleashed a multitude of possibilities in her mind. Briefly she surveyed the scene. “Where’s Martha? And Michael?” she asked. She wanted them to share in the celebration as well.
“I thought Martha was with you guys; she had Carol’s other arm,” said Rachel.
Carol put his finger to his nose in a knowing gesture. “They’re back in the Periphery. Don’t you see? It’s simple. Perfectly simple.”