Chapter 18

Mabel opened her eyes and attempted, with some confusion, to focus on the white fabric deflating in front of her face.

“Airbags?” Van choked out. “Whoever heard of airbags in an airplane?”

“Oh…yeah…” replied Mabel, dazedly, as the purpose of the fabric dawned on her. “My mother insisted…on really big ones.” In front of Van and Ivy, two more large white bubbles sagged into empty sacks.

“Are we there?” asked Ivy, stirring on the seat beside Mabel.

“I think so,” answered Mabel. “Mr. Halfslip, are you okay?” She took a quick look at Sig who, though slightly shaken, was wagging his tail and placed him on the floor with Sparkle. Then she released her seat belt and peeked around into the cockpit.

Norton was critically examining his eyeglasses, half of which he held in each hand. In front of him the entire instrument panel was draped in deflated airbag.

“Maybe we can fix them,” said Mabel. “Let’s get the hatch open.”

“Excuse me, Mabel,” piped up the ever-chipper voice of Bailey. “While all the instrument systems seem to be intact, I would advise a thorough examination of the exterior of the aircraft before our next flight. I perceived the landing to be more turbulent than usual.”

“Yeah…” said Mabel. “Yes, it was. Thanks Bailey.”

“I shall shut down until further notice,” said the computer, and its hard drive whirred to a stop.

“Wait a minute, Mabel,” said Van. He sounded oddly nervous. “I don’t think Arbogast held on so tight…”

“What…” began Mabel, looking over her seat back. Arbogast, slumped awkwardly against the wall of the airplane, appeared to have been thrown from the life-vest stack into the opposite wall. A rivulet of blood ran from his brow, down the side of his face.

“Hey,” called Mabel, “Mr. Arbogast…”

There was no response.

“Van…is he dead? Maybe we need to do something…” said Mabel. She wondered fleetingly why she should feel remotely responsible for him, but you couldn’t just leave a guy if he needed help.

“Hmmm,” came a humming sort of voice from behind Mabel and Van. They turned to see Norton pushing himself with painstaking slowness around the bank of seats they were leaning over. Norton nodded and lowered himself into a hunched crouch at the side of Arbogast. He squinted at the wound under Arbogast’s hairline, then gently put two fingers to Arbogast’s wrist to find a pulse. Satisfied, he looked up at Mabel, Van, and Ivy who had joined them, and gave a smile and a nod.

“Is he okay?” asked Van.

“Mmm,” replied Norton, with another nod. It was the most noise Mabel had ever heard him make.

“Okay,” said Mabel, “let’s leave him here to wake up. I want to go see where we are.” She picked up Sparkle, who grasped Sig by the scruff, then climbed through the cockpit and released the hatch. Mabel gave Ivy a hand over the side onto the wing, and Van came behind assisting Norton.

A clutter of branches which the Star had accumulated in its descent lay scattered about on the wings and tail. Otherwise everything looked normal, except for one of the tail fins which appeared to be bent at a strange angle. And the entire plane was leaning rather heavily to the left, though Mabel couldn’t see why. The Star appeared to have run smack into a group of trees which were standing, most unusually, all in a row like kids holding hands in a line, in a game of Red Rover. She slid off the wing onto the ground, then reached to help Ivy down.

Ivy seemed barely awake. When Norton slid down, with an assist from Van, he crouched and patted the forest floor. It was soft. Mabel could feel its springiness through the soles of her shoes. Norton sat against a tree and indicated that Ivy should be next to him. She willingly slipped into place, her shoulders under his arm, and head against his shoulder.

“They’re going to wait,” said Mabel.

Sparkle retrieved Sig, who was determinedly tugging at Van’s shoelaces, and nestled on the other side of Norton.

Van nodded. “Where to?” he asked.

Mabel scanned the woods around them. For a site in the middle of the Willibunk forest the trees were surprisingly non-random. Two rows of them led away from Van and Mabel, forming a sort of overgrown curving corridor. Mabel supposed they were now somewhere in the swirl she had seen from the air. “The path,” she said, “unless you have a better idea.”

“Nope,” he replied.

Mabel glanced around again. Except for the curving path ahead, there was no direction one could pick to set off in that looked different from any other. The trees seemed to go on forever in moist green darkness. Mabel felt grateful for the sky poking through the treetops above. It was the only thing keeping her from feeling panicked by the absence of distinctive landmarks.

“What was that?” asked Van, doing a quick spin.

Mabel followed his gaze. “Van, there’s nothing there. It’s trees.”

“Something moved,” he insisted.

“We’re in the forest,” Mabel replied. “Stuff lives here.”

“Yeah,” said Van in a not-reassured voice. “Sometimes stuff has teeth.”

The path curved to the right, and was reasonably passable as long as they stepped carefully over the vines which crept thickly from one wall of trees to the other. Occasionally they had to stop and detach briars from their jeans, but after ten minutes of steady trudging they were in a place which looked…remarkably the same as where they’d started. Except for the fern. There around the next bend, which was the same as every other bend, was the largest fern Mabel had ever laid eyes on. She was quite certain it was taller than her father, maybe even taller than Mr. Peale, and its feathering fronds spread broadly in every direction.

“It’s a jerfinia,” she exclaimed, running her fingers along the black-dot sori on the underside of a frond.

“Well,” replied Van, “it’s some kind of fern, anyway.”

“No,” Mabel insisted, “I know it’s a jerfinia.”

“Okay, whatever,” said Van, hitting the path again, “but why don’t Norton’s jerfinias grow that big?”

Mabel walked on thoughtfully for a few minutes, then said, “There’s something here that makes them healthier. It makes everything healthier.”

“And there they are,” said Van, waving toward the path ahead, “some more healthy specimens.”

He needn’t have told her. Mabel already knew. She could smell them. She briefly closed her eyes and felt she was in the Halfslips’ greenhouse, helping Norton repot baby ferns. But here the sensory experience was even stronger. It was earthy, heady…welcoming. Breathing the air here was like breathing life. There were more ferns, growing in clusters. Some were small, and some even larger than the first one they’d passed.

“Van,” said Mabel, “what’s that called when you feel like you’ve been somewhere before, even if you haven’t?”

“Déjà vu?” he suggested.

“Yes,” Mabel replied, “and I’m déjà vuing like crazy here. It’s like when I walk into Eurus Press and I’m happy ‘cause I’m home? That’s what it feels like here.”

“Oh, that’s very nice for you,” said Van,” stomping grumpily between two thickets of ferns. “I’m glad getting lost in the woods is such a homey experience for…”

Van stopped, body and expression frozen in place.

Mabel stopped two steps behind him. “What?” she said. “What is it?”

He turned his head slightly. “Water. I hear running water.”

Mabel listened too, and her mouth slowly lit into an grin. “It’s the spring,” she said. She felt enormously delighted. Suddenly she knew, with utmost certainty, where they were and why they had come. “It is the spring. It’s Cochiti’s sister!” Mabel broke into a run. “Come on!” she yelled.

“Who’s Cochiti?” said Van, to no-one. Then he followed.

The last twenty yards of path were barely passable, being all but overgrown with jerfinias, but Mabel was undeterrable as she stormed through one last thick curtain of ferns, and found herself looking at…a garden.

It was a square, and very neatly tended, garden plot, roughly the size of a small living room. Carefully tied string beans grew in a row, followed by several lines of squash, tomatoes, and tall tasseled corn stalks. Looking beyond the first plot, Mabel saw several others, one of which she could identify as potatoes, one as some kind of grain, and another low and green one which she recognized as herbs.

“Apples,” said Van, snatching something off a tree as he joined Mabel at the edge of the clearing.

“Where?” she said.

He pointed up.

They were standing under a heavily laden apple tree, which was part of a line of many fruit trees ringing the entire garden area. Mabel reached up and plucked a ripe apple, striped red and yellow, and put it in her jacket pocket.

“We should bring some for Norton and Ivy, too,” she said, noticing that the supply seemed limitless.

“Mabel Crockett,” said a woman’s voice, and Mabel’s attention quickly shifted from the apples to the garden.

“It’s the teacher lady,” whispered Van in an awed tone.

Mabel looked at the tall, willowy woman, now waiting for them by the corn plants. “Miss Wickers,” she said with certainty. There were the same strong cheekbones, the same eyes, the same kinky hair, they’d seen in the yearbook photo. But old. Astonishingly, beautifully old.

“How can she look that good?” whispered Van. “She must know Arbogast’s girlfriend, too.”

“No Van,” Mabel whispered back. “She’s not like Arbogast. She looks old.”

“Hi,” said Mabel to Miss Wickers, before glancing, with slight embarrassment, at the second apple she had been planning to pocket.

“Don’t worry,” said Miss Wickers, approaching. “you’re welcome to anything we have here. And I’m used to being called Colleen.”

Colleen was dressed in a flax-colored, loosely woven jumper, over a shirt of a similar material, dyed yellow. Mabel had never seen anyone who, though so obviously aged, looked so flexible, bright and healthy. Her white hair was full and long, and tied at the back with a strip of the same yellow material her shirt was made of.

“Do you know me?” asked Mabel.

“You seem to know me,” replied Colleen, smiling.

“We’ve seen a picture of you,” said Mabel. “In a yearbook.”

“I unfortunately have never seen a picture of you,” responded Colleen, “but it makes no difference. You look so much like Jonah.”

“Jonah,” said Mabel, “is he here? Are…they here?”

Colleen laughed. “Of course,” she said. “We’ve been expecting you.” Then she looked inquiringly at Van.

“Miss, um, Colleen,” said Mabel. “This is my friend Van Peale.”

“I’m delighted to meet you Van,” responded Colleen, taking his hand.

Van turned slightly pink. Almost, Mabel thought, the way he acted around Patience.

“I just happened to be working with the potatoes,” said Colleen, indicating her soiled knees, “and I heard you come in. Jonah and Laura are this way.”

She led them past the vegetables, between the flax and potatoes, and around the herbs, then through a break in the fruit orchard ring between two pear trees. Water rippled more audibly here. They were near the spring, Mabel was certain.

To their right, on stilts which held them several feet above the ground, stood two small huts, on either side of a larger one. The three buildings were expertly and sturdily crafted of wood, each with a fireplace of stacked river stones, and three steps leading up to a broad front porch.

“That one’s mine,” said Colleen, indicating the nearest hut. “That one is Laura and Jonah’s, and the one in the middle is where we do most of our work.”

The front door of the center building opened, and a second woman came onto the porch, carrying two buckets. She was a good bit shorter than Colleen, with a softer, rounder build. Her silvery hair was pulled loosely into a braid, and she wore an outfit much like Colleen’s, but with a blue blouse.

“There’s your Mom,” said Van quietly.

Mabel looked at Van, then back at the woman on the porch. Perhaps she should have been taken aback by the idea, but somehow she felt interested and curious rather than surprised.

“Wow,” said Laura, smiling and shaking her head. “You did it.” She set down her buckets and almost bounced down the steps, and over to Mabel, Van and Colleen. “Wow,” she repeated taking Mabel and Van by their hands. Laura’s hand surrounded Mabel’s with a confident grip. The bones were broad, and the fingers long. Mabel felt oddly as if she were holding hands with herself. Again she was struck by how radiant and lovely a person of such obviously advanced years could be.

“This is my friend Van,” said Mabel, not really knowing what else to say to this small woman whose hand felt strangely familiar in her own.

“And I’m Laura,” said Laura. Her hazel eyes soaked Mabel in. She looked profoundly satisfied. “Wow,” she repeated. “Welcome. Well… let me take you to Jonah. Then we can talk.”

Laura led Van and Mabel through a small grove of dogwoods and mountain laurel opposite the buildings. Large gray rocks, smooth and flat, formed a loose wall before them, enclosing, in a semicircle, a pool of lively water. Opposite the semicircular rocks, embedded in an uphill grade, a pair of boulders sat, one on top of the other. Where they met, the spring, spilling from the earth behind them, had worn away at the rock, forming a natural spout from which water tumbled into the pool.

“It’s like Cochiti,” said Mabel to the two women with her. “What do you call the spring?”

“We call it Owissa,” said a man’s voice. “But the spring was named long before we got here.”

Mabel looked again at the pool. This time she noticed the man seated with his back against the rock wall, in the chest-high bubbles of the pool. He looked directly at her and she couldn’t keep herself from smiling. She knew Jonah. She’d seen him in the yearbook picture with Arbogast, and in the same way that she knew Laura’s hands, she knew Jonah’s eyes and face.

“I’ll be getting out,” said Jonah. “Maybe we can all sit on the porch.”

The porch, thought Mabel, like at the Halfslips…

“We have to go get Norton and Ivy!” she exclaimed, feeling slightly appalled that she’d nearly forgotten about them. “They’re back at the plane.”

Laura and Colleen looked at each other.

“Norton came?” asked Laura. She grinned at Jonah. “Norton Halfslip?”

“Yes,” said Van. “But he doesn’t get around very well.”

“And Ivy’s really sick,” added Mabel. “It will be a long walk.”

“It’s not as far as you think,” said Colleen, leading the children back toward the houses. “Where are they?”

“We landed in…one of the outer rings of trees,” said Mabel, wishing she could provide a more specific location.

“Yes,” said Colleen, “right down that path.” She motioned to her left.

Mabel looked. Then she squinted and looked again. A straight, passable path, lined thickly by trees, led directly through the woods to where the sun glinted off metal.

“Okay…” said Van, raising an eyebrow. “I think…that looks like the plane.”

“Show me,” said Laura, taking off down the path. Van, Mabel, and Colleen followed.

Within five minutes the entire group had returned to the spring settlement, Norton using Laura as a crutch, and Ivy riding on Colleen’s back. Sparkle trotted along with Sig struggling as usual to keep up with her.

“We’re heading back that way Jo,” said Colleen to Jonah, who was approaching them from the direction of the spring, dressed in baggy pants of the same fabric as the women’s jumpers. “This baby needs a dip.”

“In fact,” added Laura, “all of you will feel better.”

“But first go change,” said Colleen, pointing toward her cottage. “You’ll find some wash and wearable clothes in there.”

When they emerged from the cottage, Van and Norton had found flaxen pants like Jonah’s, and the girls were wearing similar lightweight jumpers.

“I hope the water’s warm,” said Van as they entered the spring’s mountain laurel clearing.

“If it’s anything like Cochiti,” replied Mabel, “you won’t care.”

Van shrugged, and tentatively stuck his toe through the pool’s bubbling surface. Then he gave an affirmative grunt, and climbed all the way in. Mabel followed, taking Norton’s hand to help him to a seat in the pool, and Colleen gently guided Ivy into the water. Colleen, Laura, and Jonah sat on the edge of the pool and dangled their feet in the ripples. Sparkle took a drink, then bathed Sig with her wet tongue.

Mabel closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Just as the water of Cochiti had done, Owissa completely leveled her out. All the knots and tensions and worries seemed to smooth to nothingness, and she felt absolutely wonderful. One glance at Van revealed that he, too, was feeling good.

“So how are the woods treating you geezers?” asked a raspy voice. It was almost, but not quite, Parker Halfslip’s voice, and it took Mabel a few seconds to realize Norton had spoken.

“Pop pop,” said Ivy, now with her normal blunt enthusiasm, “I knew you could still talk.”

“Just haven’t had much to say,” replied Norton.

“And how are you feeling Ivy?” asked Colleen.

Ivy seemed to be stopping to think, but to Mabel she looked colorful, fresh, and no longer wilted.

“I’m feeling really good,” said Ivy.

Laura handed everyone a woven flax towel, and they patted themselves dry before following Jonah to the front porch of the center hut.

“Wait right here a minute,” said Jonah. He and Laura disappeared into the cottage. A few minutes later they emerged carrying trays of food which smelled almost as delicious as a meal from Mona Lisa’s.

“Everyone dig in,” invited Laura, and they sat on the steps and dug in. There were loaves of aromatic crunchy grain bread, a corn and squash casserole, apples and pears to dip in an unusual assortment of nut butters, and a noodley fish soup.

“That smells really good,” said Ivy, passing on the soup, “but I don’t eat meat.”

“Oh,” said Colleen, looking at her thoughtfully, “that’s alright, you just be sure to get plenty of everything else.”

“If I may steer this conversation back to Norton’s question,” said Jonah, helping himself to a large slab of bread, “the woods have been real hospitable to us geezers.” Mabel couldn’t help but notice a slight tremor in Jonah’s hand, but he seemed untroubled by it as he ate.

“It took a little while to get used to the neighbors,” said Laura, with a laugh, “but now we’re very fond of them.”

“The dryads?” asked Mabel.

Jonah nodded. “They drive you a little nuts with all the appearing and disappearing, but it seems normal after a few decades.”

For a few minutes they busied themselves with eating. The dogs had a plateful of noodles and fish which they were noisily polishing off. Colleen began to gather dishes and pots, then she turned and looked at Mabel. “You have questions,” she stated. “You should ask them.”

Mabel looked at Laura and Jonah. How could two people, so unknown to her, seem so familiar?

“Aren’t you guys…” she began, unsure of how to phrase her question.

“What she wants to know,” said Van, “is, aren’t you two too old to have a thirteen year old daughter?”

Jonah grinned. “We sure are,” he said.

“Then you’re not…?” began Mabel. It startled her to feel disappointed.

“We sure are,” laughed Laura. “You are our daughter.”

“Explain.” said Ivy.

“I’ve been trying to explain for years,” said Norton, leaning forward on the step, but I couldn’t get the words out.”

“Now you can,” said Ivy. She squeezed his hand.

“Go get me a jerfinia frond,” instructed Norton. Mabel hopped off the porch and pulled a large one from a nearby plant.

Norton took the frond as Mabel extended it. He turned it over. “What do you know about these?” he asked, running a finger along the black dots on the frond’s underside.

“They’re called sori,” answered Mabel. “They hold the spores, which are like seeds.”

“Like any old seed?” prompted Norton.

“No,” replied Mabel. “They can last longer. They can just sit around for a long, long time…years I guess, until they find the right place to grow.”

“Jerfinias are special,” explained Norton. “The outer shell of the spore is a little more forgiving than most.” He rubbed several of the spores off the frond and rolled them around in his palm. “With a tiny, almost microscopic hypodermic needle, I can suck the fern’s genetic material right out of its casing.”

“Why would you do that?” asked Mabel.

“So he can replace it,” answered Laura.

“With what?” asked Mabel, taking a sorus from Norton’s hand and examining it as closely as she could.

“Something tiny and precious that needs to be kept safe for a long time,” replied Laura. “We just didn’t know how long it would be.”

The conversation she’d had with her parents on the flight from Cochiti Spring came flooding into Mabel’s memory. Tiny babies…small cluster of cells…transplanted to a different mother…, and she began to realize, unbelievably, what Norton had been trying to show her for years. “You’re saying…are you saying…,” Mabel took a deep breath. “Could you be saying that I lived in a jerfinia spore?”

“For sixty-one years,” said Jonah, smiling at Mabel. “You were barely more than a tiny ball of cells.”

“But why did you do that?” asked Mabel. “Why didn’t you just have me, all those years ago?”

“We weren’t going to have children,” said Laura quietly. “We didn’t feel right about making a child live here with us, away from other people. But I got pregnant. Colleen realized it right away.”

“And the dryads called Norton,” Colleen continued.

“All those woods critters like me,” said Norton.

Colleen nodded. “And Norton thought of a way to keep this infinitesimal bud of a baby safe until we found a cure for Jonah, and could leave the spring.”

“But there was no cure,” said Van, “was there?”

“No,” replied Jonah. “There is still no cure for ALS. My symptoms would worsen whenever I was away from the spring, so I don’t go far. I bathe every day.”

“Finally,” continued Laura, “we entrusted you to Norton. We knew he’d find the right parents for our baby.”

“He did,” said Mabel. “He really did.”

“Then Norton never came back,” said Jonah, looking at Norton. “It was a long time before we knew that you’d been born.”

“Pop pop had a stroke, after Granny died,” said Ivy.

“Didn’t know I could fly, until today,” acknowledged Norton.

“There’s something I’d like to know,” said Ivy. “It would help me with the history essay I’m writing for school. Why did you all leave Logjam the night of the fire, and why did the logs really turn to sticks?”

“Part one,” responded Colleen, “is that there were many people who really thought I did it. Mob mentality can get pretty ugly, and there were death threats. Someone did set that fire, and we luckily got out. I knew of this place, and I knew it would help Jonah.”

“So you didn’t do it,” said Van, “I mean the log and stick thing?”

Colleen, Laura and Jonah all began to giggle as if this subject had always amused them.

“No,” Colleen replied. “I’ve got some skills, but I’m not magic. We don’t know who did it, but we suppose it was someone from the river.”

“Who lives in the river?” asked Mabel.

“There are several river spirits,” answered Colleen. “It could have been Talu, Gennawoc, Wendeera…we don’t know.”

Mabel looked at Van and Ivy, who returned her skeptical gaze. But not for long. Seconds later, all were staring at the tree canopy where the branches were whipping about frantically. The chop-chop-chop of helicopter blades quickly became deafening, and the adults held onto the children for support against the violence of the air being thrown about, as a fire-engine red flying machine began to descend into the clearing.

Trackback URL

No Comments on "Chapter 18"

You must be logged in to post a comment.