Chapter 4

The most annoying aspect of school, even worse than Mitchell Blunt as far as Mabel was concerned, was that it kept her from accompanying her father on all his magazine-related trips. She scrambled ahead of Van on the well-trampled path through the woods until it ended at the edge of an expansive grassy field. Ahead of them, the Shooting Star had bumped in for a landing, and it now taxied along a dirt runway, raising clouds of dust until it rattled to a halt.

Where once, in its World War II fighting days, the small airplane’s sides had been solid silver, Peter Crockett had installed three porthole windows per side, to give passengers a view. Mrs. Crockett had also embellished the plane, with an all-over mural of rain forest vines and leaves where birds and animals peeked out through breaks in the foliage. Now, as the Star glinted bronze in the afternoon sunlight, it looked as though it had crashed through the jungle, picking up riders on its way.

“Where’d…he go?” asked Van, puffing as he caught up with Mabel in the field.

“Peru,” she replied, “he’s doing an article called ‘A Week in the Canopy.’”

The bubble-window hatch at the top of the Star flipped up, and Mr. Crockett eased himself out of the cockpit and onto the wing. He hopped to the ground just in time for all ninety pounds of Mabel to leap onto his back and send him staggering.

“Yow!” he cried, swinging her around and onto her feet. “You’ve just landed on someone who hasn’t used his legs in five hours.”

Leaning against the Star, he pushed sandy hair out of his eyes and let out a deep breath. “Those,” he said, “were some of the finest trees I’ve ever slept in. You and I are going to have to take your mother there.”

“You slept in a tree?” asked Van.

“In a hammock in a tree,” replied Mr. Crockett. “Actually, in a hammock, in a treehouse, in a tree, to be specific.”

It was clear from Van’s expression that he found the idea unappealing.

“It was wonderful,” continued Mr. Crockett, undaunted by Van’s lack of enthusiasm. “Nothing over me but treetops, birds, and stars. Oh, and sometimes monkeys.”

Van considered this for a moment. “I don’t think,” he said, “that I could get much sleep.”

“Well, I would,” said Mabel, knowing it to be the truth. Nothing made her happier than traveling with her father.

Suddenly, Mabel cocked her head and cast a suspicious gaze at the Star. “Dad,” she said, “there’s a really weird noise coming from the plane.”

What had started as a quiet scratching and tiny whine escalated into a shrieking warble.

“yir, yir, yar, YIRRRRR!” came an insistent cry from the passenger hold. Then a rhythmic and determined banging.
Van stared at the plane incredulously.

“Uh, Mr. Crockett,” he said. “I think one of those treetop things stowed away in there.”

Mabel tugged on her father’s arm and pulled him toward the Star.

“Go on, Dad,” she urged. “Whatever it is, get it out!”

“You know what?” said Mr. Crockett, with a mischievous grin. “I think it wants out!” He hoisted himself onto the wing, and back through the hatch, disappearing behind the pilot’s seat. A duffel bag flew out of the cockpit, followed by a sack of dirty laundry. Mabel dodged the first, and Van managed to catch the second.

Moments later, Mr. Crockett popped up again and knowingly said, “Aha!” He climbed down with a wooden box, about one foot square. Two of the sides were wire mesh, and the top opened with a hinge.

“Okay,” cautioned Mr. Crockett, as he unlatched and lifted the lid. “This little guy is sort of unpredictable.”

“Yar?” came a quiet voice from inside the box. “Yiroo?” There was a rustling, then a walnut-sized face peered over the edge of the box. Mabel had scarcely seen it when, in a louder voice, the thing called out, “Yiirrrooo!” and bounced, as if spring-loaded, from the box, landing delicately on her head. For a moment it seemed to be swinging from her braid, but it very quickly scampered underneath to a more protected position under her hair.

Mabel froze in place, and looked questioningly ather father. “Okay Dad…what is that, a bat?” she asked.

Shaking his head, Mr. Crockett said, “It’s actually, believe it or not, some sort of elf–a dark elf, I’m told.” His voice was meant to sound reassuring, but Mabel would have been more comfortable, she was sure, with a bat in her hair.

Van eyed Mabel’s hair suspiciously. “What’s so dark about it?” he asked.

“Oh,” said Mr. Crockett, “a dark elf’s a kind, like a dalmatian’s a kind of dog. Apparently there are quite a few different types. This kind likes enclosed places, and avoids direct daylight.” He lifted Mabel’s braid. “Let’s see where that little guy went.”

The dark elf was clinging fiercely to Mabel’s hair, and it required both of Mr. Crockett’s hands to disengage it. He gently held it in his cupped hands so Mabel and Van could get a look.

The elf first glared at Mr. Crockett, then gazed longingly at Mabel’s head. Its tiny face, which at the moment wore a disgruntled expression, was startling blend of human and animal qualities. The expressive brown eyes had an Asian slant, the nose was sloping and fox-like, but the mouth surprised Mable the most with its human-like flexibility.

“Wow,” breathed Van. “It’s a little brown fox guy. No, wait, it’s a little pinkish fox guy. Okay, that’s weird.”

And it was. Mabel and Van were certain Mr. Crockett had pulled a brown elf out of Mabel’s hair, but the creature they now looked at was identical in color to Mr. Crockett’s hands.

“They’re like chameleons,” explained Mr. Crockett. “They assume the color of their surroundings for camouflage.”

The dark elf fixed its eyes on Mabel’s and said, in a very quiet voice, “rrraaart?”

Whatever nervousness she had felt melted away and she gently scooped it out of her father’s hands and nestled it against her jacket. The elf’s expression became unquestionably content, and it promptly changed color to denim blue.

“Yeah,” said Mr. Crocket, although no one had asked him a question. “It just sort of dropped out of a tree into my lunch one day. The folks there told me that would only happen if it had lost its group. It’s sort of like orphaned. They said, ‘Congratulations, Mr. C…you’ve got yourself a dark elf.’ So I wiped the mashed potatoes off him, and he’s been with me ever since.”

“It’s a him?” asked Van.

“Well, I don’t know,” replied Mr. Crockett. “They say it’s almost impossible to tell. I’m thinking you two ought to take him to Halfslip’s and see if he likes it there.”

Mabel nodded. “That’s about as close to rain forest as he’s gonna get around here,” she said.

“Listen,” said Mr. Crockett, “I’m going to go check in with your Mom, and then I have some plant samples to bring to the center, so why don’t I meet you over there in a little while?”

Mabel felt around for the dark elf, who had discovered a comfortable pocket on the inside of her jacket, and said, “Okay Dad. We’ll see you at Halfslip’s.”

A beat-up blue pickup truck waited at the edge of the airfield. As Mr. Crockett loaded its bed with equipment from the Star, Mabel and Van headed for a dirt road running along the field’s northern boundary.

“You know,” said Van, as he and Mabel hiked the short distance to the Halfslips’ place, “you might want to think about something like a cat or a dog.”

Mabel could see from Van’s expression that he was teasing her about the elf in her pocket.

“Great idea!” she replied, in exaggerated amazement. “But don’t worry about this thing becoming a pet. I think he’s going to be living at Halfslip’s. Hey, look out for the car…I mean…van.”

And, uh-oh, she thought to herself, as she realized the vehicle slowing down beside them belonged to Verdon Arbogast.

Arbogast stopped and rolled down his window. “Well, hello Barbie and Ken…or is it Van Peale and Mabel Crockett?”

Mabel stopped and manufactured a smile. “Hi,” she said.

Van nodded.

“You seem to be heading east, like me. Can I offer you a lift? I’m going to Rocky Creek.” Arbogast smiled winningly. He seemed earnest, and Mabel felt her reservations about him warm slightly.

“No thank you,” she answered. “We’re almost where we’re going…ooh!”

The exclamation came as the dark elf under her jacket quickly climbed, in a very tickly way, to the top and peeked out over her collar. He began to shake his head slowly back and forth, and made a noise which sounded like a verbal reprimand.

Arbogast did not seem to have noticed the elf. He had turned to the passenger seat to his right and seemed to be rummaging through papers. Papers which moments later began swirling around the interior of the van.

A powerful gust of wind knocked Mabel forward two steps. Van covered his eyes as a flurry of leaves swished by his face. The elf had taken refuge back in Mabel’s jacket pocket.

Mabel had scarcely regained her balance when, with an enormous crash, something pelted the front of the green van. It was a branch, and a large one at that. A long-dead branch, covered with moss, mud, and decayed leaves. It looked as if it had been dredged out of the river bottom, and it clattered to the ground leaving a spidery crack in the van’s windshield.

The wind’s force diminished as quickly as it had appeared. Arbogast had exclaimed loudly, as if in argument, but now he was collecting himself and his papers. He turned back toward Van and Mabel, extending a manila envelope out the window toward Mabel.

“I would like you to take this to your father,” said Arbogast. He smiled at her as she reached for the envelope, but his eyes were cold, and a little desperate. “Perhaps it will help us get reacquainted.”

Mabel tucked the envelope under her arm. “You know my father?” she asked.

Arbogast smiled again, this time with blankness in his narrow eyes. “We go way, way back.” He returned his attention to the road, pulled the van off the shoulder, and drove away.

Van watched as Arbogast’s vehicle disappeared, and shook his head. “That’s bizarre,” he said. “It’s almost as if he expected to get whomped by a branch.”

“Could you hear what he was yelling?” asked Mabel.

“Yeah, I think so,” answered Van. “But it didn’t make any sense. I think he said, ‘You don’t own me, Jenny.’”

“Naw, you’re right, that doesn’t make sense,” Mabel agreed. “Maybe he said, ‘could you loan me a penny?’”

“Or,” said Van, “‘Would you phone Henny Penny?’”

They looked at each other and giggled.

“What’s in the envelope?” asked Van.

“It’s not sealed, we can look,” Mabel responded. She reached inside and pulled out a black and white photograph. Van grasped a corner and looked at it with her.

“Hey,” said Van, “it’s our new best friend, Mr. Arbogast. With…someone.”

The photograph was old. Its paper backing was discolored, and it had been bent in several places. The picture was of two young men, working at a table. They were very young, possibly teenagers, but the narrow-eyed, curly-haired subject on the left was unmistakably Verdon Arbogast.

“And the other guy is…” began Mabel, “…I don’t know, but there’s something really familiar about him. It’s like I’ve seen this guy before but…I have no idea where.”

The young man in the photo wore a serious, but pleasant expression. His hair was dark, and somewhat mussed. High cheekbones, fair skin, freckles. Mabel rummaged through her brain for a hind at why he was familiar.

“Let me see that,” said Van, grabbing the photo out of Mabel’s hands. He held it in one hand, and covered part of the picture with his fingers. “Okay, look.”

Mabel looked again. Van’s index finger covered the unidentified young man’s hair, so only a bit showed over his forehead. The odd sensation that she knew him was even stronger.

“Okay,” said Van, “now imagine there’s a long braid of hair going down his back.”

Mabel looked at the picture with wide eyes, then stared at Van.

“It’s you,” he said simply.

Mabel looked at the photo again, then hastily returned it to the envelope. “Can’t be me, Van,” she said. “I’m not that old, I’m not a boy, and this picture’s gotta be at least thirty years old. But maybe Dad knows. And, if we don’t get a move on, he’s going to get to Halfslips’ before we do.”

A five minute walk later, the road turned sharply to the left. Opposite the turn, on Mabel and Van’s right, a narrow drive wound uphill, through the pine trees. A colorfully painted wooden sign marked the beginning of the drive. Next to a carved logo of a single pear were the words, “Halfslip Center for Botanical Research.”

Mabel and Van hurried up the drive. The most impressive sight to anyone who had not previously visited the center, and invisible until one reached the top of the hill, were the greenhouses. Three large, rectangular, glass buildings, built over a complex skeleton of stainless steel rods, stood as proud sentinels overlooking a campus of smaller, windowed buildings, and one contemporary cedar ranch house. Several cars, and a golf cart, were parked in a small lot in the center of the complex, and occasionally a researcher in a white lab coat scuttled from one building to another.

“Let’s find Ivy,” suggested Van, turning toward the house. Mabel skipped ahead and knocked on the front door.

They heard light footsteps, and the door swung open.

“Just in time,” said Ivy, “for some green stuff! Come in! Mom, more victims!”

As Mabel and Van stepped inside, Ivy’s mother, Mary Halfslip, called from the kitchen. “I don’t think it will do them much good, but you’re not getting away that easily.”

Ivy made a disgusted face, and led the way back to the kitchen. Mrs. Halfslip had her back to the counter, and her arms folded. Unlike Ivy, who looked a little pale today, Mrs. Halfslip’s complexion was coffee colored, and her dark hair was twisted into tiny little knots all over her head. She picked up a glass full of green liquid and held it out toward Ivy.

Ivy took the glass, held her nose, and swigged it in one breath.

“Ah,” she said. “Nothing like the daily dose of liquid grass clippings.”

“It’s minerals,” explained Mrs. Halfslip. “And vitamins. Ivy’s got a little cold or something today.”

“Yeah,” said Mabel, “I can tell. You’re looking a little, um, less…”

“Green,” said Mrs. Halfslip, finishing Mabel’s thought. “It’s a very healthy, natural color for someone of Ivy’s ancestry.”

Ivy made no secret of the fact that she was adopted, that Mary and Porter Halfslip had been unable to have children on their own, and that they’d been her parents since she was the tiniest of infants. And clearly, it had turned out to be a good match, as Ivy was completely in her element around the greenhouses. She knew more about botany than any kid, or any adult for that matter, whom Mabel knew. Between Ivy and her botany, and Van’s interest in human biology, Mabel figured her next best friend would have to be an English expert, just to round out her study-help team.

“Excuse me, kids,” Mrs. Halfslip said to catch their attention, as they turned toward the front door. “Somebody forgot his or her monkey.” She pointed toward the kitchen table. Ivy’s glass, emptied of all but a few drops, was overturned, and the dark elf, halfway in it on hands and knees, was sticking his fingers in the remaining liquid and licking them off.

“Oh, the poor little guy!” exclaimed Mabel. “I didn’t even feel him climb out of my pocket! He must be hungry.”

“Mrs. Halfslip,” said Van. “That’s not a monkey, that’s a dark elf. Mabel’s dad brought him back from Peru hoping her could live here.”

“Oh,” replied Mrs. Halfslip. “Interesting. I guess we do owe Peter a favor for all the plant samples. Try greenhouse three. It’s the most tropical.”

“Hey,” said Ivy, pouring cereal into a paper cup. “Give him some Cheerios. Everybody likes Cheerios.”

The elf scrambled onto Mabel’s outstretched arm, and eagerly reached for the paper cup Ivy offered. “Yar, yaroo,” he said, settling into the crook of Mabel’s elbow, with the cup between his legs. He picked up a Cheerio, examined it intently, sniffed it, and began to nibble.

It was obvious from the moment Mabel, Van and Ivy stepped into greenhouse three, that the dark elf was becoming excited. He began to look around and chirp quietly. Then he pulled himself to Mabel’s shoulder and stood on his feet.

“He likes it here,” said Ivy, as the elf looked around. Lush, healthy plants grew densely, filling the entire greenhouse, while narrow walkways allowed access between clusters of foliage.

“Where’d he go?” asked Van, staring at Mabel’s shoulder. Mabel quickly put her hand to her shoulder and wondered, with slight panic, if the elf had fallen off. After all, he’d fallen into her father’s lunch. Maybe he had poor balance.

Her worry disappeared when a tiny hand, green this time, reached from a palm tree growing over her head and motioned toward the paper cup, in which a few Cheerios remained.

Mabel laughed and handed over the cup, which quickly disappeared into the dense foliage.

“What should we call him?” asked Van.

“Um…Buster,” said Mabel. “Until you can think of something better.”

“Hey, Dad,” Ivy called to a man planting ferns at the far side of the greenhouse. Porter Halfslip looked up and grinned at his daughter. Brown eyes twinkled behind horn-rimmed glasses, and his black hair puffed about his head in an untamed ball.

“Dad,” Ivy continued, “if you encounter something small and elf-like around the greenhouse, don’t worry about it–it’s only Buster.”

Next to Porter, an older man looked up. Parker Halfslip, working beside his son, could have been Porter’s twin, apart from his more wrinkled complexion, and his hair, which was gray and cropped close to his head.

“So,” said Parker, fixing his gaze on Mabel. “Peter’s bringing us more treats from the rainforest, and they’re not all plants.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Halfslip,” Mabel assured him. “I think Buster will be very easy to get along with. Oh…hi Mr. Halfslip!”

This time she was not addressing either Porter or Parker, but a third man, who was sitting around the corner in a lawn chair, carefully patting dirt around the base of a fern. Norton Halfslip, Parker’s father, had founded the botanical center fifty years earlier. Now, shrunken and hunched with age, he rarely spoke, but he did an awful lot of smiling and nodding. Mabel approached him and gently stroked the fronds of the plant he was working with.

“I love jerfinias,” Mabel said, bending down toward Norton to be certain he could hear her. “I’m not sure why, but they’re my favorite plants here.”

The fern Norton was presently tending was one among a thick cluster marked by a small stake in the dirt which said “Huperzia jerfinium.”

Mabel brushed her hand along the soft tops of a group of jerfinias. Then she carefully turned a frond to look at its underside.
“The brown spots, Ivy…” she said, “…they’re called?”

“Sori,” Ivy answered. “They’re spore cases. Ferns don’t produce seeds like most plants–they reproduce by creating spores, and when the frond dries out the sporangia break open and release spores which grow into a new plant under the right conditions.”

Van continued, “and without the right conditions…”

“The spore will last,” said Ivy, “for a long, long time. Until it finds the right conditions.”

Mabel smiled, released the frond, and again ran her hand over the feathery cluster. “They’re cool,” she said.

Norton Halfslip looked at Mabel with a yellow toothy smile. His eyes sparkled behind bifocals which were slipping down his nose, and his face reminded Mabel of a walnut. As usual, he said nothing. Then, unexpectedly, he ran his fingers along the brown sori, as Mabel had, and grasped her hand in both of his. It seemed to Mabel that he wanted to communicate something to her, but, since he didn’t speak, she didn’t understand.

“Hey guys,” called a woman’s voice from across the greenhouse. Mrs. Halfslip had entered along with Peter Crockett. “Peter’s brought some great stuff. Look at this Blechnum…and a Rauwolfia we haven’t had before.”

“I don’t think anyone’s had it before,” added Mr. Crockett. He set the large pallet of samples down on a potting table. “Mabel, we need to scoot. I told Van’s folks I’d drop him off too.”

As Mabel climbed into the cab of the blue pickup truck, after Mr. Crockett and Van, she realized she’d carried a small potting trowel out of the greenhouse with her.

“Hang on, Dad,” she said. “Let me run and stick this in the shed.”

A small cedar-clad square building, with its door ajar, stood beside greenhouse three. Mabel pushed the door further and entered, replacing the trowel on a pegboard wall, covered with hooks. As she turned to leave, she heard a slight rustling toward the rear of the shed.

“I’m glad you came,” said a voice, only it seemed to Mabel that she was not hearing with her ears, but perceiving the voice in some other way.

With slight apprehension, she walked the ten feet to the back of the shed. A pile of burlap, used for bundling root balls of saplings, had been padded down into a makeshift nest. In the nest, looking up at her with what Mabel was certain was a smile, was Sparkle.

Sparkle thumped her wiry white tail and gently nosed a little lump beside her which Mabel had not noticed. It was a wiggling little pink lump, with the barest hint of white, brown, and black markings.

Mr. Crockett and Van appeared in the doorway.

“Look,” whispered Mabel. “Sparkle has a puppy!”

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