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In a Dark Wood


In a Dark Wood





























































































































































































































































































































  

The world yielded before me now like water. I fished out the addresses Ruth had given me, found my aunt's telephone number, announced my arrival in America, and was booked on the plane to Charleston by the following afternoon. It was very easy. By the time I had finished explaining who I was there was no question about not staying. Aunt Lily gave me directions in a clear, drawling voice. So I shaved, packed, and paid. The doorman and the manager himself came to wish us bon voyage. I pressed another fifty dollars into each hand, and waswaved off as if we were royalty.

We had many more bags by then than the two with which we had arrived, but nothing would part Cosmo from his FAO Schwarz giant panda bear, new bow and arrows, Furby, and Playmobil pirate ship. Nothing, that is, except the dead-eyed U.S. security guards who, despite my son's screams, also insisted on putting Ti-Ti through the X-ray machine to see if it had a bomb inside.

"Why can't you just bend the rules a bit?" I said angrily. "You can see the bloody thing's a glove puppet."

"I'm only doing my job," said the one closest to me.

Cosmo's screams mounted as his toy was carried away on the conveyor belt. He stretched out his arms, with tears flooding down his cheeks like something out of a Victorian morality painting. The giant panda got stuck.

"I'm sorry, sir, this will have to be checked in," said the guard.

"I don't want it anyway," my son wept. "I only want my tiger."

The guard's mustache quivered. "Hang on, son," he said. I saw to my amazement that despite Cosmo's appalling behavior he was actually feeling sorry for him. The wretched Ti-Ti was put into his hands. By the time we had walked twenty meters it was all forgotten.

"Read me a story," Cosmo said, as we waited in the airport for the flight to Charleston. He had great dark circles under his eyes. He was munching a packet of crisps. Once again, I'd forgotten to give him breakfast.

"OK. What do you want?"

"A story from that book."

I turned the pages of North of Nowhere. "Here's one called 'The Wild Wood.' " I sighed internally. Another bloody wood. "Are you sure you wouldn't like Babar? Or Pugwash?"

"No. They're for babies." Cosmo settled himself on the hard, gray seat of the lounge, wriggling, then became still.

Long, long ago there was a dark wood that no man dared set foot in. Strange stories were told by those who ventured there: of a great ruined house with ragged people swarming over it like bees; of a dwarf who rode a black cat as big as a panther; of a fire burning and children dancing round it, all of whom vanished when approached. Once a woodsman, bolder than the rest, struck his axe into a tree. There was a shriek, and a stream of blood poured out of the cut. The terrified man ran away as fast as his trembling legs would carry him. After that, nobody dared go near the place.

I stopped so that Cosmo could see the dramatic picture that accompanied this tale. It depicted a man staggering back, axe in hand, with an expression of horror on his face, watching black blood gush out of the cut he had just made in a tree. The tree seemed to writhe and claw at him, its bark twisted and knobbed into the approximation of human features, screaming with pain. All around loomed other trees, the boles twisted and hung with creepers or ivy. The ground was scattered with toadstools. If you looked hard you could see the figure of an old man in the shadowy background.

"I don't like that one," said my son. "It's spooky."

"It's just a picture," I said, in the way that adults do. "It's all made up."

Yet the trees and the blood seemed to flicker in the corner of the eyes with that strange, febrile life my mother managed to put into her drawings. I wondered if my aunt would be able to tell me how Laura had learned her remarkable skills. Somebody must have taught her.

A mile or two from the wood there was a village, and in this village lived a man, his daughter Anna, and her stepmother. Anna was a good, quiet girl who only wanted to live in peace, but this the stepmother would not allow. She beat her and yelled at her all day long, gave her the hardest work to do and only just enough to eat. Her father did nothing to stop his wife. All in all, she made Anna's life a misery.

One day, Anna went out with the other village children to pick strawberries. They wandered on and on until at last they reached the edge of the dark wood, where the finest strawberries always grew, splashing the grass with their bright color. The children filled their baskets, then threw themselves down and ate as much as they wanted. Suddenly a cry went up from one of the older boys: "Run! Run away as fast as you can! We're in the wood!"

All the children sprang to their feet screaming, and rushed away—all except Anna, who had wandered far into the wood and found a bed of strawberries under the trees. She heard the cry but stood undecided. "After all, what does it matter?" she thought. "What lives here can't be worse than my stepmother."

Looking up, she saw a little black dog come trotting towards her. It had a silver rope round its neck, and the rope was held by a young girl, the same size as Anna and dressed in green silk.

"I'm so glad you didn't run away like the others," the girl said. "Stay with me here and be my friend, and we'll play wonderful games every day. You'll have as much as you like to eat and drink, and nobody will beat you. Come."

She held out her hand and Anna took it. Deep they went, and still deeper, into the wild wood. There were fruit trees laden with blossom and fruit, brightly colored birds swooping in and out of the branches, violet butterflies with wings as large as Anna's hands. Great trees were twined around with flowering vines; from their branches hung moss like white stars. The air was both sweet and bitter, and the grass was as soft as velvet. In the middle of the wood was a white house, and before it stood a lady in rich garments who turned to Anna's new friend and said, "Who is this you've brought me, Elsa?"

"I brought her back to be my friend," said the girl. "Can she stay?"

The lady said nothing, only smiled and stroked Anna's cheeks and asked her if she would like to do so.

At this, Anna knelt down and kissed the lady's hand, sobbing, "I have a stepmother who beats me all day long, and a father who cares nothing for me. I beg you not to send me back, she will half-kill me."

The lady smiled and said, "Fear nothing."

Then they went into the house, and Anna did not know which way to look, it was so fine. Everyone was dressed as if for a wedding, and the table was piled high with food and fruit. A little old man rode in on a black cat, came forward, and bowed to the lady.

"Do you see this girl?" she said, pointing to Anna. "I wish to adopt her for my daughter. Make me a copy of her, and send her to the village in her place."

The little old man bowed again, opened a basket, and took out some clay. Under his hands a doll as large as a baby began to form. When it was finished he bored a hole in the doll's breast, and put a slice of bread inside where the heart would be. Then he took a snake out of the basket and forced it into the hole, stopping it up with a plug of clay.

"Ugh, gross! I hate snakes," a voice piped.

I looked up. A crowd of children had gathered, and they were sitting on the ground. Much to Cosmo's annoyance, I showed them the picture. There was the little old man with his basket on the ground. A slim black snake writhed in his hands. I could almost see it lashing this way and that as it approached the doll Anna. Beside her stood the real Anna, and behind them, sheltering her own daughter with one arm and her adopted child with the other, the Lady of the Wood. All were dressed in flowing, almost medieval robes, and all were lovely; but the face of the child was all too familiar. She was younger than the girl in "The White Bear" and "The Bird of Truth" but I could see the same dark hair and fine features.

Or was I imagining the resemblance? How much could I really see from a few lines reproduced in a book? I looked at the picture again. The full moon shone down, through the densely hatched trees. There was something particularly disturbing about the doll and the man and the snake, but it took a moment to see what this was. Then I saw the doll's face. It looked exactly like the flesh-and-blood child beside her, but her mouth was open. The snake's head was being forced not towards any hole in her chest, but in the direction of her mouth. A shudder went through me.

"I've got a doll," said a little girl. She held it up for inspection.

"She does wee-wees when she has a drink."

"Don't interrupt," I said, irritably.

"Now," the old man said to the lady, "all we need is a drop of the maiden's blood."

At this, Anna grew white with terror, for she thought she was selling her soul to the Devil.

"Do not be afraid," said the lady. "We do not want your blood for any evil purpose, but to give you freedom and happiness."

When Anna nodded, she took a tiny golden needle and pricked her finger so that a single drop of blood welled out onto the tip. The lady gave the needle to the old man, who stuck it into the heart of the doll, promising that the next day they would all see what a fine piece of work it was.

When Anna awoke the following morning, she was in a soft white bed in a room of her own. A beautiful dress was lying on the back of a chair, and a maid came to comb her long hair. But nothing gave Anna as much joy as the little pair of embroidered slippers that matched her dress, for until now she had been forced by her cruel stepmother to run about barefoot. By this time, the doll had grown as big as Anna, and was wearing Anna's old clothes. Nobody could have told the difference between them.

"Don't be afraid," said the Lady of the Wood, noticing the girl's start of terror at this. "The doll can do you no harm. It is for your stepmother, so she may beat it instead of you. Unlike you, the doll can never feel any pain; and if she and your father do not mend their ways, it will soon give them the punishment they deserve."

From this time on, Anna's life was that of any ordinary, happy child. She had no cares or troubles of any sort, and as the years went by her old life seemed like a bad dream. The Lady of the Wood loved her and cared for her, and Elsa was her playmate. Every evening there was a feast, and every morning peace.

But what of the doll? When it came to the stepmother's house, the stepmother gave it such a beating that it would have killed a real child. As the doll could not feel, it made no difference, which of course only enraged the wicked woman more.

I looked up. The children listened, round-eyed; their parents, too, were spellbound. I showed them the picture of the stepmother, her face contorted with fury, beating the doll in the porch of a house. The doll was very obviously a doll, its face blank, but the stepmother seemed not to have noticed. The background looked familiar; I was almost sure it was the same house as that in "Lolly and the Giant," the house made of white clapboard.

The stepmother's temper grew worse and worse. She beat the figure day and night, and always the doll stood there, not making a sound or shedding a single tear. If the father tried to interfere, he was beaten also. One day, the woman became so mad with rage that she seized the figure by its throat. Out darted the black snake from the doll's mouth, and bit the woman's tongue so that she fell dead without a sound. That night, when the woman's husband came home he found her body all swollen and disfigured, but the girl was nowhere to be seen. There was nothing except a slice of bread on the table.

The man's cries brought his neighbors running, but when they were asked what had become of the man's daughter, they shrugged and said that they had heard a great noise from the house that day, as every day, and thought nothing of it. The body of the dead woman was laid out for burial, and then the tired husband sat down to eat. He picked up the piece of bread, and put it in his mouth.

"Uh-oh," said one of the older boys. "Big mistake. I bet that snake is gonna get him now, too."

"It serves them right," said a girl. "If I had parents as mean as that, I'd want them dead, too."

"Honey!" said her mother, shocked. She stood up and said loudly, "I don't think I like this story, mister. Come on, Donna."

"No!" said Donna. "Stop bugging me. I want to hear what happens next."

In the morning the father, too, was found dead and swollen. So the wicked woman and her weak husband were buried, and nobody was any the wiser that the real Anna was in the dark wood alive and well.

"Told you!" said the boy.

She lived there happily for many years, growing into a lovely young woman; but Elsa was just as she had been the day they first met. Anna learned many things in the wild wood that she would never have learned in her own home. But Elsa much preferred childish games.

"What a pity," she began to say, "that you've grown too big to play with me anymore."

So there came a time when Anna was summoned to the lady's room.

"Dear child," she said, "the time has come for us to part."

Anna flung herself down and buried her head in the lady's lap. "What have I done wrong, to be sent away?"

"You have done nothing wrong," said the lady, "but you are a mortal child, and will soon be a woman. We look like men, but are not. Now it is time for you to rejoin your own kind. You must go away from here, and find a husband to live happily with until you die. It is very hard for me to part with you, but so it must be."

Then the lady took out a golden comb and gently pulled it through Anna's hair, so that she fell asleep. When she awoke, she was a bird. She flew high into the air, and higher still, until she flew across the ocean and found herself in another country, way above a forest. She felt a sudden sharp pain, as an arrow pierced her breast, and was tumbling down, down, down, out of the air, to land as a woman at the feet of a prince with a bow in his hand. . . .

"I can guess what will happen next," said Cosmo, disgustedly. "She'll marry him, right? They always end up getting married."

I had a quick look at the last paragraph. "Yes, and they all live happily ever after. Look, our flight is being called. We'd better go. Sorry, everyone."

The children got up, reluctantly, and wandered back to their parents.

"That was a creepy story," said Cosmo.

"It was, wasn't it?"

"I didn't like the girl. She didn't do anything, not like Lolly and the giant."

It was true, I realized. What it was really about was the revenge worked upon the girl's parents by the doll—the doll that looked just like the daughter, and my mother, but who had a snake in her heart. I looked down past my son's head at the vastness of America, and could not comprehend it. Cities and industrial wastelands went on and on for miles, then suddenly stopped and were abruptly replaced by what looked like impenetrable wilderness. As we climbed higher in the thrumming plane only the division between sea and land was discernible: both equally unending, immense.

"Are we still in America?" Cosmo asked, pressing his tiger's battered nose to the porthole.

"Yes. We're traveling south. It'll be a lot warmer there."

"Warm enough to swim?"

My son adored swimming. In water he discovered an ease and confidence that was never his on land.

"I don't know. Maybe. We're going to see my aunt Lily, your great-aunt."

"Does she have children?"

"I don't know. If she does, they'll be grown up, maybe with children of their own. Are you missing Flora?"

"A bit."

I thought of my daughter briefly, her spirited sweetness, her smallness. She had never seemed more remote. "We've bought lots of presents for her."

"But when are we going to go home?"

I began to talk about how marvelous America was, of how it had been discovered and settled. Privately, I was suddenly seized with anxiety about having my son with me. My aunt might have a house like my mother-in-law's, crammed with porcelain and crystal that any child under twelve could be guaranteed to smash. I hadn't mentioned Cosmo on the phone. I wished, not for the first time, that I hadn't brought him.

As soon as the plane landed, however, I knew I had come to the right place. This was another America. I collected our baggage, then looked for a car-rental firm. Cosmo, like someone in a trance, walked out and sat down on the rough grass by the airport entrance. He began picking daisies with intense concentration.

"Here, you guard the baggage. I'm just going to rent us a car."

I walked away, and it occurred to me how easy it would be simply to leave him there, to keep on walking. I found a Hertz counter and rented a white Oldsmobile, then went back. My son sat, his head bent. He looked up and grinned. "I've done you a daisy chain. Do you like it?"

"Daisy chains are for girls," I said.

His face froze. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Daddy, I didn't know."

"Never mind. I can pretend it's a crown."

I put out a hand to take it, but he threw it away, stamping his foot. I was saved from another tantrum by the arrival of the car. Immediately, he was fascinated. I packed the boot and the backseat, fiddled about with the mirrors, and then we were off, following the directions my aunt had given me. The gears were automatic, which gave a strange, gliding sensation to everything. I still couldn't believe I was here, retracing my mother's journey. How much had everything changed since her time? The yellow school bus trundling along the highway looked exactly as it must have done forty years ago.

"Dad! Dad! That's Lowly Worm's bus!" said Cosmo, delighted. This was a cartoon character of which he and Flora were very fond, principally because nothing frightening ever seemed to happen to him.

I drove on and on, my foot on the gas pedal. It was like driving a toy car, with none of the changes and attentiveness to rhythm that a gear shift requires. The looking-glass feel of driving on the right-hand side of the road added to the dream I was in. Here were long, low supermarkets and franchises. You couldn't tell where one place stopped and another began until they began to repeat themselves. In between were shabby trailers, their wheels sunk deep in the grass. People sat out on the steps, looking at the infrequent traffic with the patience and sorrow of animals. Every now and again, we passed a tiny white Baptist church with a sharp steeple and the name of its pastor written up in prominent letters.

Behind these ribbons of development soared trees, dense and verdant. I kept looking for gaps, for views through them, but there were none. It was either suburbia, or the wild wood, with the woods apparently untouched by human hand. I remembered what Ruth had said: The woods there are like the deepest, darkest manifestations of the subconscious you could hope to find. Had she visited my relations?

Of course, I thought, the Viners had had holidays in America. Perhaps one of them had been in the Carolinas. I couldn't remember. Even as I followed my aunt's directions, I noticed that the signs of human habitation were flagging. Occasionally there were meadows, as lush as any in England or France, but increasingly the trees were closing in. There were cypress and myrtle, with birds of prey circling above them, but most of all there were oaks of some sort. They looked magnificent, yet the branches were all hung with what looked like gray rags, fluttering like ghosts hanging up to dry in the breeze. They were too many to be bits of motorway rubbish, as I at first assumed. Yet this deathly decoration did little to lessen the fecundity of the place. The trees had white jasmine and scarlet trumpet vines twined round their trunks, and all along the verges wild flowers the same color as bluebells frothed and bobbed. The air that came through the window was both bitter and sweet.

"How much longer is it until we get there?" asked Cosmo, the whine creeping back into his voice.

"Not long."

"Dad, why did the chicken cross the road?"

"That's an old one. To get to the other side."

"Why did the dinosaur cross the road?"

"I don't know. Same reason?"

"Because chickens hadn't been invented. Is that funny?"

"Here's the bridge over the river, look." We crossed a wide, shining expanse of brown water. I glanced to one side and saw a log suddenly sprout legs, lumber to the water's edge, and slide in. "Look, look, an alligator!"

"Where?"

"There! Too late, you've missed it."

The woods grew denser and darker. The trailers and tiny churches petered out. We crossed over a railway line, and the great trees sent their branches twisting over us, branches that did not arch and spray like European trees but which writhed like the letters of a foreign language. The road became bumpier and more potholed, and the ugly loops of thick black cable dangling from post to post gave way to slim pylons. At last, just when I was becoming convinced that I had taken a wrong turn, I saw a small sign saying "To Magnolia House." Five minutes later, I drove through some large wooden gates set in a dense, thorny hedge. The sweep of a drive encircled a great tree with shining coppery leaves and creamy flowers like bowls. The magnolia, presumably. My mother's home appeared. It was a long, two-story house of white wood with a veranda supported by white pillars running the length of it. There were shutters on the windows, painted a faded blue and closed against the glare of the afternoon sun. It looked as if it were sleeping; the silence when I braked was like some viscid substance rushing into a breach. For a moment, I held my breath, and so, I think, did Cosmo. Then a small breeze rustled the leaves overhead, and a wood pigeon said, "Coroo, coroo," in a soft, mocking voice.

We got out and went up the steps. On either side sprouted bright green ferns, every tiny leaf of which trembled as we passed. I pressed the doorbell. Cosmo slipped his hand into mine. I felt its small warmth in my own. There was a long pause, followed by light footsteps. Then the door opened.

I recognized her instantly. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the stream of dazzling light in which she was framed, and then another moment to understand that the old woman I had expected was young.

I had seen her on white paper in black ink, as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, and now as she was before me. Her face was as familiar as my own. The dark hair flowed like shadows around her head and shoulders. I had seen her waking and sleeping, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. It was her image that had called me here, across the skies, across the seas. It was for her I had come.

I thought, for another wild moment, that my mother had been here all this time, all of my life miraculously preserved in this strange place. Such a wildness of grief and joy rushed through my body that my heart rose like a bird about to take flight. Then she smiled and said, "Hi. You must be cousin Benedick. I'm Rose."

She put out a hand, briskly. I took it. It was warm. She was a real American girl—or woman, for as far as I could tell she was about the same age as myself. She wore jeans and a white T-shirt, not the medieval drapery of my mother's drawings. Yet I would have known her anywhere.

"You look surprised."

"Yes—yes, I am. I was expecting my aunt. Lily Gardener."

"Mom's resting. We weren't sure what time you were arriving, and we have a wedding to prepare for the day after tomorrow."

"A—a wedding?" I said stupidly. "Are you getting married?"

She laughed, a strange, silent laugh. Her teeth were small and white and even, like a child's. "Me? Oh, no. No, a couple who're flying in tomorrow. They're having about a hundred and twenty people for the ceremony, and we're catering for them. We run a guest house here, didn't Mom say?"

I saw at once how to handle this. "Then you must let me help you. I'm a cook as well as an actor—I can do it all for you, just show me where everything is."

A smile like the moon grew across her face. "Oh, no. That wouldn't do at all."

"Yes, yes, it would. I love cooking—"

"Who is this?"

I had forgotten all about Cosmo. He was standing there twisting his T-shirt in his hands, staring. It crossed my mind that he looked half-witted. "This is my son, Cosmo. Say hallo, Cosmo."

"Hallo."

He ducked behind me. I said, my anger barely suppressed, "He's a bit shy. Stand still, Cosmo. I'm sorry, he had to come too."

Cosmo stuck his tongue out. I could feel Ti-Ti being pressed into the small of my back.

"Never mind. We'll get acquainted later. We love children. This old house needs them. Come, I'll show you to your rooms."

We were standing in a wide hall, its walls and floors of wood, though the walls were painted white. Framed black-and-white photographs of people in hats and white clothes hung on them. I looked around. The air streamed gold with motes. A clock ticked and chimed. At the bottom of the stairs was a large brass gong. Farther along was a pair of doors, facing each other. At the end of the hall were french windows giving out onto another veranda, some kind of terrace, then a long series of steps leading down to a puckering expanse of bronze water.

"You like it?" said Rose, following my gaze. "My mother's work. Gardener by name, gardener by nature. It's her hobby. Mine, too." She looked ruefully at her hands. "Though we also do the other stuff around here."

"What a wonderful house. I wasn't expecting anything like this. Is it very old?"

"It was built in the 1860s. The style is Gothic Revival. All heart of pine—should last forever if it's properly looked after. Not very old by European standards, I know, but here it's historic."

She had told people this many times before, I could tell.

"Have you been to Europe?" I was following her up the stairs. Her long dark plait bumped against the waistband of her jeans. I had always laughed at the idea of falling instantly, desperately, consumingly in love, and now it had happened to me.

"No." She turned and looked down at me, as though this were some sort of challenge. "Well, once, as a child. But I don't remember it. Otherwise, I've never been out of America."

"But that's terrible," I said. "You shouldn't just be stuck away here in the backwoods."

"Have you ever been to America before?"

"No."

She smiled. "Then we're even, I guess."

Cosmo trailed behind. "What is heart of pine?" he asked.

"What?" I turned to him irritably. He repeated his question.

"I don't know. Ask—"

Rose opened a door at the top of the stairs. "Heart of pine is what it sounds like. It's the heart of a pine tree."

Cosmo stared at her. "I didn't know trees had hearts."

"Oh, they do."

"Do you cut them out with a knife? Like in Snow White?"

"No, with a saw. It's not like a human heart. It's like a tree within a tree. The kind of pine you normally buy is softwood, you see; but right in the middle, right at the core, a pine is hard. It's one of the hardest, toughest woods you can find—which is just what you need in a climate like this, with rain and heat and insects. But it means that one tree will only give you about three planks, and to cut down a whole wood just to make one house costs a sackload of money. So people hardly ever did it, even long ago when this family was rich."

She looked around. "Well, do you like it?"

I followed her gaze. There was a magnificent antique bed with four dark posts carved to resemble cobs of maize rising up at each corner. It was spread with a pink chintz bedspread. On each of the top two pillows was a chocolate in a black paper doily. (Cosmo moved purposefully towards these.) The two windows were festooned with more pink, shrouded by net and some sort of wire mesh, as well as the branches of a great tree outside. Between them was a kidney-shaped dressing-table, also draped in pink, with a small padded stool beneath it. There was a TV bracketed to a wall and a number of lamps in fringed shades illuminating the whole.

"It's great," I said faintly. "Very—very—"

"Pink?"

I laughed, and she did too. "It's Mom," she said. "She wanted to make it look right for the guests. All the rooms have been booked for a wedding on Saturday. It's lucky we had two left. Come, I'll show you the rest. Cosmo can have the room across the passage."

Cosmo's mouth turned down. I knew he would want to sleep in the same room as myself, as he had done at Ruth's and in New York, so I said heartily, "That's nice. Big boys like sleeping on their own, don't they?"

So he said nothing, clutching Ti-Ti to his chest. I glanced at its squashed, blurry face and again had the uneasy feeling that a gleam of intelligence came from its plastic eyes. Cosmo's room faced the garden, and the water.

"Is that a river?"

"The good ol' Edisto itself. Well—a tributary."

His room, like my own, was stuffy and airless. I moved to the window. "Does this open?"

"Sure. But there's air-conditioning."

I said, "I'd rather open it. I must have fresh air, you know. Everyone English does."

It took a little work. She came over to my side to help. The window was finally released, and swung back, trailing broken webs in its hinges.

"That's better," I said, breathing deeply. I could smell the wild, bittersweet scent I had smelled before. If the women my wife had tried to fob me off with had put this on their skin, I wouldn't have objected, I thought.

"Uh-huh. Wait until evening."

"What happens then?"

"The insects come out to play." She laughed silently.

My son said, "Dad, can I swim in the river?"

She turned to him. "Not unless you want to be eaten by a 'gator."

"What?" he said rudely.

"She means, an alligator. No, you can't swim, I'm afraid. Alligators eat little boys."

Rose gave him her wide, white smile. "But there's a Jacuzzi."

My son forgot to be hostile in his enthusiasm for swimming. "What's that?"

"It's a hot tub. Don't you have them in England?"

"Yes." I wouldn't have been caught dead in a Jacuzzi, but added, "It's like an extra big, round bath. It's hot, and it bubbles."

"It bubbles your troubles away," said Rose, turning to leave. "I go out there at the end of the day with a glass of Zinfandel and look at the stars. But it's best not to stay in too long, or you get dizzy."

There was nothing about the way she spoke that could give you any idea of how enchanting she was. I had probably worked with actresses more beautiful. But it wasn't even to do with the way she looked.

She left us. If I didn't see her again immediately, I wouldn't be able to exist, I would be blotted out, I was already blotted out. I flung myself facedown onto the bed, inhaling her scent, grinding my hips into its softness. I tried to remember my wife's neat, handsome head, her somewhat mannish elegance, her poise. Surely I had once loved her as deeply as this, before she had made me suffer so much?

"Daddy? Dad?"

"What?" Reluctantly, I turned to my son.

"Can I go and play?"

"Yes, of course," I said, annoyed not to be alone with my voluptuous thoughts. "Just don't go near the water."

"Or the witch's caldron."

"What caldron?"

"The jack-thing. The one she—"

"Who?" I asked stupidly.

Cosmo said in a whisper, his finger pointing downwards, "The one who showed us to our rooms."

I sat up abruptly. "Rose?"

Cosmo looked at me, his eyes wide. "Can't you see, she's a witch?"

I blamed myself. I had read him too many stories from my mother's book, and like all children he had confused the real and the imaginary. I was angry with him, and frightened, too. Ever since I had arrived in this country I myself had become less and less sure.

"But of course you can't see she's a witch," he said, earnestly. "People who're under a spell never can."

"Don't be ridiculous," I snapped. "I am not under a spell. My cousin Rose is—is a very beautiful woman, that's all. It just took me by surprise. Why don't you go off and explore?"

He clung to me. "Come, too."

I shook him off. "I need some rest."

I didn't need rest, of course, I never needed rest these days, even when my head felt as if it were full of scratchy cotton wool. Life was too beautiful, too exciting, with all the things to do and places to see. But first I had another matter to attend to, something shameful, but as necessary as scratching an unbearable itch.

"Off you go."

"No. No! I don't want to go on my own."

He sat down on the bed beside me and put his arms around me. I could smell the sweetness of his breath, see the pure, living white of his eyeball, the flushed curve of his cheek. His small, lean body was not the one I wanted, but its innocence drained the hardness from me.

"Read to me."

"I've read you too many stories. You should learn to read yourself."

"That's so boring. I'll never read as well as you."

"Yes, you will. It's just practice. Everything is practice."

"Is acting practice?"

I was silent for a moment, remembering. Even my vocation seemed less important. "Some is. You have to learn your words, other people's lines, and moves. It's like a kind of dance. You feel for what is beyond the words, above the words. You have to be awake, but in a dream. I suppose it's like anything creative. You can't do it unless you find something that comes from within. Finding that thing every day is very hard. The hardest thing in the world, really."

"Do you have it?"

"It's just a question of finding the right parts."

Very gently, he reached up his hand and stroked me on the cheek. "I know you'll find it again."

I put my arms round him.

I woke with a start to find Cosmo gone. There was a faint indentation where he had lain beside me, nothing more. I felt a sudden jolt of terror, pure and unreasoning. Why had he left, when he had been afraid? Had someone taken him away? Had he woken and decided to explore on his own? This last I quickly found to be the case. At the bottom of a series of shallow steps was a wide bowl of lawn. There my son glided to and fro on a swing suspended from a massive tree. When I came closer I saw he was gazing out at the river with a dreamy, excited expression.

"Hallo. I thought I'd lost you to an alligator."

"Can you see it?"

"Where?"

"It's over there. Behind me." He swooped past with birdlike grace. "I thought it was a log at first."

"How do you know it isn't?"

"I looked," he said, smugly. "Hey, Dad, what do you get if you cross a camera and an alligator?"

"I don't know."

"A snapshot!" Then the dreamy expression returned. "Look, Dad, look, I'm flying."

I had loved swinging, too, as a child. I could still remember the feeling, the exhilaration of traveling up and up and up until it seemed I could touch the sky with the tip of my toe; then the terrifying downward swoop, everything rushing away, the breath pressed out of my lungs, before the re-ascent. I felt giddy just watching him. "D'you like it here?"

He considered as he glided past again in the warm evening air. "It's better than New York," he called back. "There's grass and trees and things. Even if there's also her."

I decided to make no response. As he returned I asked, "Would you like some supper?"

"Yes. What's an alligator's favorite game?"

"Snap." He looked disappointed.

"Yes, what?"

"Yes, please."

"And then shall we try the Jacuzzi?"

"I saw where it was," he said, slowing to a halt. "Shall I show you?" He led me up the steps again, his small legs appearing and disappearing like the light of an evening star. The stairway was lined with dense, shiny green shrubs bearing pink and red flowers. Camellias. I'd never seen such luscious abundance. Halfway up was a small, round fountain bubbling out of a tall mound of mossy rock. The sound it made was almost inaudible. I had passed it before without noticing.

"There's a goldfish, look." He pointed, and I saw the flick of a large fin and body, curiously leprous, its orange scales blotched and blurred with white. I bent over, and glimpsed a face wavering in its surface, a face that smiled and grimaced and stretched and vanished in a sudden gush to a dark dazzle; a face I didn't recognize as my own.

"Come on," said Cosmo impatiently. I was dragged up, almost to the level of the veranda. There were more flowers here: red lilies growing on thick fleshy stems, four blooms to a stem. I had only ever seen them in pots at Christmastime before. Each trumpet seemed to glow with an unearthly light in the setting sun, as if filled with blood. I bent and sniffed. For all their luxuriance they, too, were quite without smell.

A steady, rhythmical plopping noise came from behind a shrub. I saw another round pool, larger than the fountain and black-rimmed, its waters milky with motion. A green towel was spread to one side, and a figure was immersed up to the shoulders in the pool's steaming contents. My body jerked forward, even though I knew in the same instant it was, once again, not the person I expected to see.

She rose out, cautiously and gracefully, offering a hand at the end of a lean arm, its skin as withered as chamois leather. "Benedick," she said. "I'm so glad you found us. Won't you join me?"

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Excerpted from In a Dark Wood by Amanda Craig. Copyright © 2002 by Amanda Craig. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.