The leap, p.13
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       The Leap, p.13
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  My eyes watered – or were they crying? I couldn’t tell. I simply remained looking out even as my eyes glazed and everything was blurred from view. I was in a forest, in a town. And I could not escape. The wolves had already broken through. Now the very trees had come to join them, jostling up against my window and seeking to blanket out the world. I could not escape. I recognised the trees themselves now. They were the same pines that I had chased through over twenty-four hours before, the last time I had slept. I had tried to evade them, to close out the chase and catch up with Max. But it was not to be. I was still in the wood and there was nowhere to hide.

  After an unknown time I felt a stiffness in my legs and remembered where I was. I drew the curtains and came away from the window, instinctively walking round the gnarled mossy pine trunk that rose through the carpet beside the wardrobe. I sat down on the bed again under a dark canopy. The smell of pine sap filled the room. Sleep began to pull my limbs down hard as if lead weights fixed them to the bed. Through force of habit I wrenched myself into a sitting position, reaching out for my Walkman. But I let my hand drop. There was no point running any more. I lay down again, head on the pillow. James slept silently alongside.

  As I slipped towards sleep, my thoughts rose up in the last moments with a kind of clarity. How strange it was that my pursuit of Max should make me, in turn, pursued. Once, back at the mill pool, I had been welcome too. The women in the water had sought to draw me in. But my refusal had angered them; now the guardians of that country would prevent me from catching up with Max – he who had accepted and passed through.

  Why had Kit not warned me of the dangers? Perhaps he was angry too: I had rejected the fruit. From beginning to end, I had failed to follow Max when it counted, coming close to him, never catching up. In short, I had messed up every chance I had.

  I was too weary to feel the anguish my failure deserved. My eyes closed. The smell of the wood grew strong. My bed shifted, becoming sloped, uneven. Needles prickled my arms. Wolves howled.

  TWENTY SEVEN

  WHEN I WOKE up, it was around eleven. Light was streaming in through the window. For a moment I was confused by my surroundings, but then I remembered that I was in Charlie’s room. I’d been completely out of it. Hadn’t dreamed a thing. To my great relief, Charlie was lying peacefully alongside me. At bloody last. The events of the night came flooding back to me, making no more sense than they had then. Less, if anything. Wolves. Christ.

  At least Charlie was finally asleep. By the looks of her she’d be out for a long while. Very deeply asleep this time: no movements, no disturbances, no nightmares. Good. Still, Mum had better know. I got up and went downstairs.

  No Mum, just a note on the kitchen table. I cursed roundly. Of course, she was away in town, away for the day on the secretarial course. She’d be back this evening. The note confirmed it. No number left. Have a good time. Oh well.

  I had breakfast and got dressed, then looked in on Charlie again. Still flat out. The curtains had been left open and I went over to shut them. As I did so, I caught sight of a notebook lying on the carpet on the other side of the bed. There it was. Just like that.

  A thrill of the forbidden passed through me. She would never know. I crept over and bent to pick up the notebook, keeping my eyes on Charlie’s face the whole time. She didn’t stir, her breathing made no sound. Spark out. I took the book and retreated downstairs to the kitchen table.

  A single glance told me that there was far more of it than I expected. Charlie seemed to have been keeping up a diary for weeks, almost ever since Tilbrook had given it to her, and the book was three-quarters filled. It was all in her usual scruffy scrawl, hastily written in biro, although a lot of it was messy even by her standards. The first few entries were short, and so were the last – she seemed to have peaked midway. Well, I had nothing else to do, so I settled down for a read. It was only when I began that I realised the nature of the record.

  Reading it took me half an hour – maybe more, because I kept going over bits again to try and make sense of them. There wasn’t much sense to be found. What I did make out was that my little sister was very, very confused.

  It was a diary of her dreams and, from what I could gather, those dreams had been spinning her a yarn for weeks and weeks, ever since the time she went back to the pool. All those hints she’d given me in that period, all the doubts I’d had, now stood in sharp relief, revealed as the tips of a massive iceberg hidden under her quiet surface. Day by day we’d got on with ordinary drab things when it was all happening for her at night. And to think I’d quietly sat and listened to that bloody Dr Tilbrook waffle on about her exploring her loss. Exploring was right! Poor Charlie.

  The worst of it was it proved what I’d expected. Charlie simply hadn’t accepted Max was gone. Well, she knew he’d gone all right, but she was still after him and her dreams were convincing her she was catching him too. And she seemed to be transferring her convictions to the real world, hanging round his poor mum and dad, hearing their son’s voice, maybe seeing him into the bargain. But I didn’t understand the wolves bit at all.

  What should I do? Charlie was asleep and secure. That was the main thing, and she wasn’t having nightmares or wounding herself now. OK, let her sleep. Mum was away but Dr Tilbrook’s number should be somewhere. I went to check out Mum’s telephone book. Sure enough, there it was. Right, let’s see what he had to say about this. Exploring her loss, my arse.

  The phone rang and rang. Come on. Finally, a pick up. A woman’s voice. Sorry, Dr Tilbrook is away this weekend. In London. Back on Monday. Why don’t you call then? Brilliant – thanks a lot. No, no message.

  Useless. But all was not yet lost. Charlie would be asleep for a long while yet. With luck she wouldn’t surface till Mum got back. She wouldn’t be in any danger as long as she was comatose and as long as I watched over her. When reinforcements arrived, we could work out what to do.

  I stockpiled a couple of bags of crisps and a can of Coke from the kitchen and nabbed the biscuit tin for good measure. All this I took to my room. Then I poked my nose into Charlie’s: no change there. Satisfied that all was well, I retreated to my bedroom leaving both our doors wide open. I assembled a pile of comics and a few books I’d never got round to reading and settled down in comfort. For the moment, all I could do was wait and see what happened.

  TWENTY EIGHT

  I LET MY head fall back, and lifted my throat up ready to be bitten. I might as well get it over with.

  But nothing happened. No teeth, no foetid breath, no howling. I opened my eyes slowly. Pine tree branches clogged the view above. There was no wolf at my throat. Blinking a little, I raised my head and squinted around. It was the same slope that I had fallen down the day before, but now revealed in full by strong sunlight drifting down through the forest’s dusty layers. And there, at the crest of the slope, stood the wolves, looking down at me.

  They didn’t seem any less savage. Even as I looked, two of them made a feint down the slope, growling, as if to leap and tear me apart. But something made them stop, turn back and return to the top of the rise. And I could see that the eyes of the group were as often turned to the right, out of my vision, as they were to me.

  Suddenly a loud crash sounded from the right and the wolves started. A second crash came, the sound of a heavy blow on wood. At this, without a noise or hesitation, the wolves turned tail and disappeared among the trees. I waited a little but they did not return.

  Getting painfully to my feet, I took stock of the situation. More crashes resounded from the forest: repetitive, deliberate chopping. This was something I had never heard before in all my travels, and if the wolves feared it, then that was good enough cause to investigate. I would go that way.

  I headed off along the side of the slope and almost immediately saw the source of the noise. Across an open space a man was cutting at a tree with an axe. He hewed away at it ceaselessly, never pausing or breaking his rhythm. At every stroke, fragments of white heart
wood leaped into the air. The clearing was filled with the rough bright stumps of newly felled trees.

  The man himself was tall and slim with long fair hair reaching to his shoulders. He didn’t seem to have noticed me and I began to make my way among the stumps to greet him. But then I paused. In his thinness he reminded me strongly of Kit, but there was another resemblance too which awoke very different memories. Something about his thin white shoulders and his pale arms and the swirl of his long, long hair reminded me of the women in the pool.

  Kit had called Max fortunate and said he was lucky to have been chosen. Maybe, but I was tied to the remembered terror of those moments, to the memories of black-green eyes approaching through the water, to the caressing touch of long cold fingers and the ripping of my flesh. And of Max sinking in their arms. Foolish or not, I did not want to meet this man. I left him to his work.

  Sounds of other axes met my ears. I walked along the edge of the clearing and presently saw others chopping at trees, cutting the felled trunks into manageable logs and loading them on to carts. The forest all around was noticeably less dense than I remembered it, and up ahead I thought to see open patches of bright green showing through the trees.

  At this I hastened forward, desperate to be out of the trackless forest at last. As I was about to leave the clearing and plunge into the last barrier of wood, I passed close to a woman gathering brushwood into a large woven basket. She looked up at me and smiled.

  ‘Late for the Fair? Keep on straight, love. It’s not long now.’

  I hurried on without thanks. My heart had been given a jolt when I looked at her, so strongly did it remind me of the women in the water: the long hair, the smooth face, the green eyes. Her hair was blonde, not pale green like theirs, and her skin had a healthy summer’s tan. Still, it unnerved me.

  Now I was among the outlying trees of the forest, running as best I could, with all the aches and grazes of the journey stiffening every joint and sinew. Strong, unadulterated light began to break upon my forehead, my eyes blinked at the sudden change and with a last impatient effort I broke through the final ragged clump of thorns and bushes, and was out into the open.

  And here I stopped and gazed.

  I had come out at the top of a gentle slope which appeared to mark the boundary of the great forest. On either side, the trees’ edge stretched in a hard straight line into the hazy distance, following the crest of the rise. And out in front, stretching down from the wooded margin along all its immense length, was a sweet meadow bathed in summer sun. Long grasses waved in the sunshine, studded all over with red and yellow flowers. Butterflies of a hundred colours floated above the grass tips and bees hummed in the heavily scented air. After a month lost in the endless forest it was a sight to gladden the soul.

  And this was only the beginning. The slope stretched down from me for a considerable distance, until – perhaps half a mile distant and a few hundred feet below – it levelled out to a great field or plain. This continued unbroken to the very horizon, except in a single place where a solitary green hill rose up. And at the foot of that hill, spread out exposed for me to gaze and marvel at, was the Great Fair.

  Throughout all the later stages of my journey, Kit’s words about the Fair had been lodged clearly in my mind. ‘A most marvellous and exotic Fair.’ My eagerness to see it for myself had since been exceeded only by my desire to catch up with Max. And now the Fair was revealed.

  The nearest fringe of the Fair extended right up to the foot of the slope on which I was standing. It was marked by a wooden fence or palisade, which surrounded the whole site and which was broken in many places by carved gateways decorated with green bunting. In a couple of places the fence had not been completed: carts laden with logs for this purpose were trundling down the slope from the forest and little crowds of workmen were swarming like beetles over the unfinished sections, sawing, hammering, driving new sections into the ground.

  Through every gateway, people were streaming in and out, carrying baskets, pulling or pushing carts or bearing bundles in their arms. Once inside, they melted into a sea of figures, a hive of motion, surrounding an endless fragmented patchwork of multicoloured stalls, decked out with flags and waving streamers. At this distance, it was impossible to say what treasures the stalls contained, but the hubbub of the Fair rose clearly up the slope to me, a beguiling mix of music, laughter and general kerfuffle exactly as Kit had foretold.

  At the centre of the Fair, the stalls gave way to great marquees, striped and fat, their roofs billowing slightly in the wind. Here too were dark towers of polished wood shining in the bright sunlight. They seemed to have openings at the top and projecting spirals at the sides – and after a moment I realised what they were: helter skelters of great size. Alongside these were raised square platforms a bit like boxing rings and several open areas, laid with polished wood. I wondered what purpose these might serve – and then I remembered the great Dance.

  Somewhere below, amid the throng, was Max. I was closer to him than ever before and, although I could not be sure, it seemed to me that the Fair was only gearing up and had not properly begun. Surely the Dance could not yet have taken place? With a thrill of hope, I set off down the slope.

  As I went, the long grasses brushed ceaselessly against my legs, stroking a sweet fragrance up around me. My path disturbed an endless succession of bright blue and red butterflies which erupted up from the grass and were left dancing behind on either side. Several times giant rabbits or hares ran startled from the undergrowth, racing away from me up the slope. And high above, birds drifted and swooped against the sky, hunting insects on the winds. Onwards, down the hill I went, possessed by a new delight, a resurrected energy. This was a run to awake in me the joy of living; gone was the deathly tiredness of the last few days, the dreary death-in-life of my dreary room and house and street. Gone was the muddled searching through the decaying town, picking amongst the grim scraps that Max had left behind. Gone too were the wearisome witterings of my brother and mother; as I ran, the choking fug their talk had left inside my brain was whipped into life by the swift air, teased out into thin shreds and scattered in my wake. My head was clear, my eyes shone, I was fully alive once more. Down the hill I ran, towards the waiting Fair.

  As I drew nearer, my eyes widened in increasing wonder at the beauty and richness of the stalls and their customers. I could see now that even the meanest awnings were made of the finest silk and that the poles that held them up were painted gold. Meadow flowers had been plaited into long, slender bundles which looped merrily around the edges of each stall roof and around the sharp tops of each log in the palisade. Hanging too from the tallest poles on many stalls were ornate gold cages in which sat delightful songbirds of a thousand colours, all on their feet and singing plaintively at me as if their hearts would break.

  This splendour was matched by the appearance of the visitors to the Fair. I was now approaching one of the gates, to which a steady stream of people also headed. Men, women and children – all wore the most colourful fabrics, mainly of green, yellow and blue cloth. The women and children had long loose skirts with flowers in their hair. The men wore jaunty tunics and trousers; some sported broad-brimmed hats, others let their hair fall long around their shoulders. All went barefoot, talking and laughing excitedly together as they hurried towards the entrance of the Fair.

  Work on the palisade was now completed and the workmen flung down their tools and withdrew inside the compound. The tides of people flowing into the various gateways began to lessen into a fast-dwindling trickle. A few latecomers were running towards the entrances, adults pulling children by their hands to speed them on or lifting them bodily into their arms. I was still running down the slope towards the nearest gate. Now the music from inside began to swell, reaching a new level of excitement and urgency. The noise of the crowd beyond the fence also grew, peals of laughter sounded, cries of joy and celebration. I was now too low down to see above the barrier – only the tops of the nearest s
talls remained in view and presently these too disappeared behind the garlanded spikes.

  I was running as hard as I could. There was hardly anyone remaining with me outside the barrier; only a few latecomers racing along with anxious faces, heads down. One of the last, a man, turned his head towards me and beckoned urgently.

  ‘Come on! Come on!’

  Then I saw it was Kit. He gestured towards the gate where a heavy door of bound logs, which had been concealed inside, was slowly swinging into position. I redoubled my efforts. Now I was at the bottom of the slope, I had joined the beaten path where lately so many people had walked. But I was all alone. The gate was almost shut. Kit disappeared inside without a backward glance. He was the last. I ran as hard as I could. I was the only one left outside. I ran, ran. The door closed to and I was still beyond the barrier.

  And as it shut, all the noise – the music, the crying of the birds, the baying laughter of the people which had beaten down upon me like a water torrent so that I thought my back would break – all that engulfing cacophony was suddenly cut off.

  In that terrible silence, I fell against the wood, pushing at it, banging at it, rubbing the skin from the base of my fists, beating against it until all my energy was gone. But the door remained fast.

  I slumped to the ground outside the gate. The Fair had begun, and I was still outside.

  TWENTY NINE

  I HAD EATEN all the crisps and drunk the Coke, and had put away most of the biscuits. I had gone through the comics, too, and was now flicking through a cheesy fantasy novel which ripped-off several I’d read before. Meanwhile, I’d been lounging on my bed with my head propped against the wall. So I was bloated, bored and had a pain in my neck. And that was before my troubles began.

 
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