Just as I twisted around to see who was calling—thud!—a chunk of dried horse dung struck me square on the forehead. A little way up the street, I spotted my good friend, Paul Jacobson, bent over, laughing his butt off, and his little sister, Emily, standing nearby with her hands clasped over her mouth, her gray-blue eyes incredulous. She turned, marched up to her brother, and punched him in the arm.
He feigned a cringe, stumbled back, and threw his hands up as though to avoid another blow. Or maybe to surrender. “What’d you—”
“I oughta tell Pa what you did!” Emily said.
“Well, he should’ve ducked after you so generously warned him.” Paul tried to hide a smirk behind his hand, but it was still evident in his eyes.
I hopped down from the back of the wagon and brushed crumbs of manure from my britches. “I’d knock you into a cocked hat if there wasn’t a lady present.”
Emily, her two blond braids dangling below the lacy shoulders of her pine-green dress, blushed. She couldn’t have been a day over fourteen. Paul—at eighteen not quite a year older than myself—was also fair-haired and had the same color eyes his sister was blessed with, though they looked a mite bit better on her.
“I didn’t intend on hitting you.” He snickered. “It was Emily… messed me up.”
“I was aimin’ for the sideboard, but she knocked me off kilter.”
Emily’s braids swung out with a twist of her head. “I did no such thing!” Her lower lip pushed out as she singed her brother with a pair of fire-spitting eyes.
Paul squinted at me and tapped his forehead. “You have a spot of manure right there.”
“Aiming for the sideboard, huh?” I wiped a sleeve across my brow.
“I was aimin’ to invite you to supper. Ma sent me down. But her?” His head tipped toward his sister. “You’ll have to ask her what brought her this way.”
Emily’s mouth fell open. “I just came for the walk is all.” She rolled her eyes, shook her head, and let out an indignant huff.
“Well, your timing couldn’t be worse, I’m sorry to say. I’ve already eaten.” I patted my stuffed belly. I’d just had my supper while sitting on the back end of my uncle’s wagon parked out in front of Jacobson’s General, the store belonging to Paul and Emily’s family. Behind me, matching a list from my aunt, were a ten-pound bag of sugar, a couple cans of lard, a sack full of dried beans, salt, soda, and an armload of other fixins, as well as the sundry hardware my uncle needed. Everything was tucked neat and tight against the front boards, leaving just enough room for me to stretch out on the blankets I’d brought along.
“You’re passing on chicken and dumplins?” Paul said.
“I reckon so.” It almost hurt to say it.
“And apple cake?” he added.
“You’re just as welcome to come for some dessert.” Emily’s eyes flitted from mine to her brother’s and then elsewhere, as though looking for an appropriate place to settle.
“I don’t believe I could wrestle down another bite of anything at the moment.” I didn’t say as much, but my aunt would have my head if she were to get wind of me imposing. “But please, beg your ma’s pardon for me. And give her my gratitude.”
“You sleep in that thing?” Paul pointed to the wagon.
“I was plannin’ to.”
He smiled. “With all that horse dung in there?”
“You get up there and clean that out for him,” Emily snapped.
Paul stepped around to the side of the wagon and glanced down over the sideboard. “It ain’t that bad.”
“That’s because it mostly landed on me.” I brushed a few more crumbs from the front of my shirt. Paul swept out what was left in the wagon with his hands.
“You sure you don’t want to come up for some apple cake?” Emily asked.
I looked at Paul’s sister. Was it begging I saw in her eyes? How could I possibly say no?
So I enjoyed a large chunk of Mrs. Jacobson’s apple cake—a thick sweet crust on top—out on their front porch, while Paul’s little brother chased his youngest sister around the yard until Abigail, the oldest, called them in for bed. That, and the fact the sun had slipped behind the mountains to the west, meant it was time to say my goodnights. After I thanked her for dessert, Mrs. Jacobson insisted I take a bed there, but I politely declined, as my Aunt Lil would more than expect me to do.
Later, once the gas lamps across the street were lit, the cicadas and crickets quieted to a handful, and the town came to a stop, as still as a corpse but for the thump of a distant door slamming shut and a dog barking in response. I lay in the wagon, my head on the bag of beans, staring up at the stars. I knew I’d be dead tired come morning, though I didn’t really care.
I’d spent the first day of July, eighteen seventy-five, bouncing along behind my uncle’s two horses, driving a wagon of bagged flour and grist up over the mountain to Wallingford and then into Rutland. It’d often happen that farmers bringing their grain to my uncle for milling would have no other means to pay than a percentage of their crop. Whenever that percentage added up to a wagonload, I’d be employed to make a delivery to Jacobson’s General. But more and more, the farmers were giving up on grain and turning to sheep. It seemed like nothing was regular anymore, except for the sun, the moon, and maybe the trains.
The following morning, after lying there in the wagon listening to Rutland wake up, then getting up and going across the street to watch the seven-fifteen from Burlington arrive, I started home. Bright, cumbersome clouds lumbered overhead, small patches of blue setting one apart from the other; it looked as though it’d be a fine drive. About four miles before Greendale, at a level spot just beyond the last ridge, I stopped to give the horses a rest. I was carrying their watering pail up from the creek when I heard a faint whining from somewhere on the other side of the road. A dog is what I figured. I didn’t hear anything else, talking or anything, just that sorry-sounding critter.
I thought it curious, a dog being out there in the middle of nothing. I was never one to stand by while an animal suffered, though, so I went looking for it.
I made a soft, chirpy whistle, thinking it couldn’t be far off, but then the sound quieted, and I couldn’t be sure where to look. I had my eye on a spot just south of me, near the base of a big old oak tree, when I thought I saw something move. Maybe it was that pup, maybe a rabbit, a squirrel, or something else; I caught no more than a brief, sidelong glimpse. I kept my eye at the base of that tree and crept forward a little. I blinked and, just like that, the tree was gone, the oak tree. Just like that—a blink—gone.
The hairs on the back of my neck bristled. I stared. Of course, I knew that what I had just seen, I couldn’t have seen. I squinted and blinked, looked to the left and right and back again, then grabbed hold of a nearby maple sapling to keep myself upright while I gave the woods another goin’ over.
“No,” I whispered. My grip tightened on the sapling. “No, this ain’t right.”
It wasn’t just the one tree; it was all of them. They were, every last one of them, changed, as if they’d been rearranged, as if I’d been dropped on the other side of the world—an entirely different forest. I squeezed my eyes shut and then opened them.
“No.” I turned and looked behind me. For the life of me, I didn’t know where I was or even where to start sorting it out. But then I noticed a ribbon right there in the sapling I was holding onto, just above my hand, tied to a twig. I wouldn’t have thought much of it, given the circumstances, but it was especially queer. I’d never seen a ribbon that color—orange, bright as a setting sun. It had a hold of my eye just as I had a hold of that tree. I thought, why would someone go and put a ribbon in a tree, way the heck out here, in the middle of—
I again glanced about. “This is crazy. It’s crazy.” I took a good solid look at that ribbon and noticed something even more peculiar about it. I squinted. “What the dickens?”
I had to let go of the scrawny trunk below it in order to have use of my hands. They shook as I untied the thing from the branch and continued shaking as I attempted to examine it. The orange strip was made of the strangest material—as thin as the skin of an onion, with a tiny, intricate, woven texture along its length.
The whining, the trees, the ribbon—it had not occurred to me that they might all be members of the same crazy clan. I’d altogether forgotten about the dog—didn’t hear it anymore—and had nearly forgotten about the trees as my attention was so completely fixed on that piece of ribbon in my hand. Then, a movement caught the corner of my eye, and I swung my head to the right. The sapling I had been holding onto just a minute before was gone. I looked to the south. There stood the oak tree in its proper place, the place where it had been deeply rooted for who knows how many hundreds of years. It didn’t take but a moment to realize I was exactly where I should’ve been in the first place.
“Move!” I started running, but then quickly stopped as I realized I was headed in the wrong direction. I glanced back at the oak tree, then up toward the treetops, searching for the sun while trying to find my breath. After a moment, I got my bearings and took one last look around to assure I was where I thought I was. “Go! Go!” I scrambled back to the wagon, slipping, tripping, and stumbling over limbs and branches along the way.
I covered almost a full mile before I found a normal breath and, in the time it took to travel that distance, made absolutely no progress in sorting out what had happened. My mind was a tangle of conflicting notions, and the only way to unravel it was to deny as much as I could; I didn’t see the oak tree disappear. Trees, as everyone knows, don’t do anything but stand in the same spot year after year and grow—and slowly, at that. I didn’t see the forest go from one thing, to another, and back again. It was all just a hiccup in my mind.
I held onto that ribbon—put it in the storage box under the seat. Every now and then, I’d reach down for it, half expecting it not to be there. It was, though. Every time I went for it, it was there.
Aunt Lil had kept supper warm on the stove for my return—ham and beans, and cornbread. I unloaded the wagon, parked it in the barn, and saw to the horses. By the time I was done, she had the table set.
For the first while, my uncle and I were both so occupied with keeping our mouths full, neither one of us said much.
Uncle Edwin was the only pa I ever really knew. But then, perhaps “knew” wasn’t the right word. My uncle wasn’t fond of a lot of questions; I knew that. He wasn’t the most patient person I’d ever met, either, but I suspected he appreciated my helping him around the mill. He never really said as much, but I gathered that from the fact that he paid me so generously. Aunt Lil, on the other hand, never seemed to mind when I’d go on chattering about this and that. It didn’t matter what it was. She used to say I could talk the ears off a brass monkey. If she didn’t want a part of it, she’d simply ignore me—or tell me to hush.
I was picking through my beans in search of a chunk of ham, when my aunt brought up the dancing the Mosiers were planning on hosting down in Weston. She ran down a list of neighbors who’d talked of attending, then said, “You fixin’ on us all a-goin’, Ed?”
“I was thinking we would.”
We attended a good many of the socials in Weston, just four miles southeast of Greendale. But then, there probably wasn’t a soul around who’d pass up a barn dance, even where it was a quarter-day’s drive.
Aunt Lil asked about my trip into Rutland, whether or not I’d seen anyone and if the fried chicken and biscuits she’d sent along were fine. I told her that besides Mr. Jacobson, I saw Paul and his little sister, Emily, and told her that her chicken was, as usual, the best I ever had. I then pulled that piece of ribbon from my pocket and handed it to her. I told her I’d found it tied to a branch in the woods. That was all I said about it. My uncle was eyeing it from the other end of the table. I asked for the cornbread, but my aunt was fixed on that curious strip of material, and I don’t know that she heard me. Then my uncle asked to see it. She handed it back to me, and I passed it on to him.
“May I have some cornbread, please?” I repeated.
She lifted the skillet—her hands raw from having done laundry earlier in the day—and passed it my way.
“Whereabouts did you find this?” Uncle Edwin asked.
I described the place to my uncle while trying to spread butter on my cornbread. The cornbread wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t quite warm enough to melt it.
He examined one of the crinkled ends, squinting at it, his crow’s feet bunching up like a squeezed, leathery bellows. “It ain’t silk, is it?” He tugged at the two ends, causing it to stretch. “What in the devil is this?”
“Can we please refrain from cussin’?”
“Well, you ever see the likes of it, Lil?”
“It ain’t cause for cussin’.”
“You have any idea what this is?”
She shook her head. “No more than you, but you won’t hear me cussin’ about it.”
My uncle turned to me. “You said it was tied?”
“Yes, sir, a square knot.”
“Now, why would someone go and tie a dang piece of ribbon like this to a tree limb? You think they were marking that particular tree?”
“I can’t imagine why, sir.”
My aunt wanted to see it again, so I passed it back to her.
I finished up my cornbread, scraped the last few beans from my plate, and asked to be excused.
“That all you’re having?” my aunt said. “You not feeling well?”
“Tired is all.”