“My Granma told me about you.”
Jilla and I were walking away from the village. On a rare mild Saturday in the near-constant assault of cold, we had decided to follow the path on beyond the back of the Zabowski’s place where it led under the firs. This was a small wood but we knew it led on to another once you crossed the stream, and then you were beginning to walk among trees so tall and numerous that you suddenly knew you were in the forest. And the forest was as old as time and twice as dangerous.
“What about me?”
“About your mother and Jan Creusel.”
“Nothing.” We walked on silently. I could hear the trickle of the stream just ahead as it ran over the rocks. It would be full and running fast because of the rain.
“What d’you do in Jan Creusel’s house?”
“It’s always warm. I play with Buruk. And find out secrets.”
“I tell you the secrets I find out.”
“But those are just stories.”
“They’re secrets that I find out. No-one else knows them. That flower I gave you?” I nodded. “The hermit in the cellar grows them. One time there were thousands, millions, all red and heavy in the air. The next time, there were none, except just that one, on the floor.”
“Who is the hermit?”
“I’ve never seen him: he doesn’t know I’m there. No-one knows I find out the secrets except Buruk. I see what the hermit grows in the dark.”
“Plants don’t grow in the dark.”
We crossed the stream by a plank that had been laid across it years and years ago. I remembered crossing that stream behind my father and Mani. I saw the waterstained boots he always wore, the length of his stride almost two of Mani’s and my own desperate attempts to keep up with them both. It felt like a billion ice ages had come and gone since that memory and yet that plank was still there.
Once over the stream we plunged into the trees and suddenly the world shifted. As the branches were whipped about by the wind, they moved as though to attack. The air was green-scented and dark; it was springy underfoot. This was the start of the forest, the forest we were told about when we were little; told about and told about.
Don’t go too far in – you’ll never come back out. It’s old, older than anyone can remember and it creeps up to the stream, waiting to cross it and come to the village. Every winter, the men go to the edge and cut it back, and every spring new fir trees grow. Don’t play under the trees – you won’t notice the dark getting darker or the silence getting stronger until you hear an owl above you and feel how alone you are. Then you’re lost, and once you’re lost, you’re dead.
We walked in silence. I didn’t want to ask more questions and I didn’t trust what Jilla was telling me. Yet I had the flower. For a second a spark had been lit.
We were daring each other to stop and suggest turning back. Daring without speaking. I looked across at Jilla every now and again as the stream’s noise faded behind us and then it was a thick quiet that we walked through. Her hair hung to her jawline, tangled, and she walked on as if she were crossing the street to the standpipe. She didn’t look at me. As we climbed over a fallen tree without comment, I suddenly knew that Jilla had been here before. She knew where she was. At that moment I wanted to be in the village, anywhere, talking to Brena in her kitchen, splashing freezing water on my shoes – anywhere but in the forest with Jilla.
“Let’s go back.” I had caved in first.
“This is boring.” I turned and climbed back over the fallen tree, not looking at her. I was cold all at once, and almost jogged in my hurry to get back to the stream. I could hear Jilla some way behind me, her feet cracking twigs and a cough every once in a while.
“You’re going the wrong way.”
I jerked to a halt and looked up. Jilla was right. I had veered off the main path onto a barely visible track, probably made by animals. And I hadn’t even noticed. I was afraid then, more afraid than I had been for over a year. I was alone with Jilla. And if I had been alone without her, I would probably have been dead by this time the next day. No-one knew where we were. Including me.
Jilla led me the way we had come. It was further, so much further than we had ever walked on the way out. Trees flickered in my peripheral vision as I concentrated on the ground, watching my disembodied feet go one in front of the other. I was panting dryly, and could form no words.
Jilla too was silent, but Jilla often was. I knew that she wasn’t scared, she had come here by herself, maybe many times, and told no-one. She wandered, seeing what wasn’t there, making sense of the things most of us would never confront. Her eyes were glazed, watching the world as if it were somewhere she would never visit. I felt close to panic, and then I caught the first sound of the stream and almost wet myself as warm relief pulsed around my veins.
Standing on the bank of the stream, the world shifted back to normality again. But I was quick to cross the plank, and I didn’t look back, even though a voice in my head told me that I should.