Can a childhood memory be misconstrued as starting over? I don't think so. Not in this way: The forests outside Stockton remain as real to me as the humid, fungi-laden streets of Ambergris, maybe more so. The dark leaves, the mottled trunks, the sense of deep green shadows reflected on the windows of our house, as of a presence. All sorts of trees grew in Stockton, but the difference between the staid oaks that lined our street and the misshapen, twisted, coiled welter of tree limbs in the forest seemed profound. It both reassured us and menaced us in our youth: limitless adventure, fear of the unknown.
Our house lay on the forest's edge. The trees stretched on for hundreds of miles, over hills and curving down through valleys. Various were the forest's names, from the Western Forest to the Forest of Owls to Farely's Forest, after the man who had first explored the area. Stockton had been nestled comfortably on its eastern flank for centuries, feeding off of the timber, the sap, the animals that took shelter there. Even though Stockton was marginally to the south of Ambergris, across the River Moth from it, Stockton was much more temperate because of the forest. It never got as sweltering as Ambergris.
By the time I had turned thirteen and Duncan was nine, we had made the forest our own. We had colonized our tiny corner of it-cleared paths through it, made shelters from fallen branches, even started a tree house. Dad never enjoyed the outdoors, but sometimes we could persuade him to enter the forest to see our latest building project. Mom had a real fear of the forest-of any dark place, which may have come from growing up in Ambergris. (I never had the sense that growing up in Ambergris had been a trauma for her-she lived there during very calm times-but it is true she never talked about it.)
One day, Duncan decided we should be more ambitious. We had made a crude map of what we knew of the forest, and the great expanse labeled "Unknown" irked him. The forest was one thing that could genuinely be thought of as his, the one area where he did not mimic me, where I followed his lead.
We stood at the end of our most ambitious path. It petered out into bushes and pine needles and the thick trunks of trees, the bark scaly and dark. I breathed in the fresh-stale air, listened to the distant cry of a hawk, and tried to hear the rustlings of mice and rabbits in the underbrush. We were already more than half a mile from our house.
Duncan peered into the forest's depths.
"We need to go farther," he said.
Back then, he was a thin little kid, small for his age, his shocking blonde hair beginning to turn brown. His bright blue eyes sometimes seemed too large for his face. He liked to wear long green shirts with brown shorts and sandals. He said it served as a kind of camouflage. I used to wear the same thing, although, oddly enough, it scandalized Mom. Dad could have cared less. (Camouflage or comfort-I don't remember.)
"How much farther?" I asked.
I had become increasingly aware that our parents counted on me to keep watch over Duncan. Ever since he'd gotten trapped in a tunnel the year before, we'd all become more conscious of Duncan's reckless curiosity.
"I don't know," he said. "If I did, it wouldn't be much of an adventure. But there's something out there, something we need to find."
His expression was mischievous, yes, but also, somehow, otherworldly. (Otherworldly? I was nine. There was nothing "otherworldly" about me. I liked to belch at the dinner table. I liked to blow bubbles and play with metal soldiers and read books about pirates and talking bears.)
"But there's all that bramble," I said. "It will take ages to clear it."
"No," he said, with a sudden sternness I found endearing, and a little ridiculous, coming from such a gangly frame. "No. We need to go out exploring. No more paths. We don't need paths."
"Well...," I said, about to give Duncan my next objection.
But he was already off, tramping through the bramble like some miniature version of the Kalif, determined to claim everything he saw for the Empire. He had always been fast, the kind to set out obstinately for whatever goal beckoned, whatever bright and shiny thing caught his eye. Usually, I had control over him. Usually, he wanted to stay on my good side. But when it came to the forest, our relationship always changed, and he led the way.
So off he dashed into the forest, and I followed, of course. What choice did I have? Not that I hated following him. Sometimes, because of Duncan, I was able to do things I wouldn't have done otherwise. And, such a relief, when I followed him, the weight of being the eldest lifted from me-such a rare thing, even BDD.
The forest in that place had a gathered, a concentrated, darkness to it because of the thick underbrush and the way the leaves and needles of the trees diluted the sun's impact. To find a patch of golden sunlight in the gloom was like finding gold, but only accentuated the surrounding darkness all the more. The smell of rot caused by shadow was a healthy smell-I didn't mind it; it meant that all of the forest still worked to fulfill its cycle, even down to the smallest insect tunneling through dead wood. It did not mean what it would come to mean in Ambergris.
Duncan and I fought our way through and over stickery vines and close-clumped bushes. We felt our way over fallen trees, stopping in places to investigate nests of flame-colored salamanders and stipplings of rust-red mushrooms. The forest fit us snugly; we were neither claustrophobic nor free of its influence. The calls of birds grew strange, shrill, and then died away altogether. (As if we had gone through a door to a different place, a different time, Janice. I could not believe, sometimes, while in the forest, that it existed in the same world as our house.)
At times, the ground rose to an incline and we would be trudging, legs lifting for the next step with a grinding effort. The few clearings became less frequent, and then for a long time we walked through a dusk of dark-green vegetation under a canopy of trees like black marble columns, illuminated only by the stuttering glimmer of a firefly, or even just the repetitive clicking of some insect. A smell like ashes mixed with hay surrounded us. We had both begun to sweat, despite the coolness of the season, and I could hear even undaunted Duncan breathing heavily. We had come a long way, and I wasn't sure I could find the route back to our familiar paths. Yet something about this quest, this foolhardy plunge forward, became hypnotic. A part of me could have kept on going hour after hour, with no end in sight, and been satisfied with that uncertainty. (Then you know how I have felt my entire adult life-except, we're told there is no uncertainty, Janice. No one makes it out, we're told, from birth until our deathbed, in a thousand spoken and unspoken ways.)
The sting, the burn, of hard exercise, the doubled excitement and fear of the unknown, kept me going for a long time. But, finally, I reached a point where fear overcame excitement. (You mean common sense overcame excitement.)
"Duncan!" I said finally, to his back. "We have to stop. We need to find our way home."
He turned then, his hand on a tree trunk for support-a shadow framed by a greater gloom-and I'll never forget what he said. He said, "There is no way to go but forward, Janice. If we go forward, we will find our way back."
It sounded like something Dad would have said, not a nine-year-old kid.
"We're already lost, Duncan. We have to go back."
Duncan shook his head. "I'm not lost. I know where we are. We're not there yet. I know something important lies ahead of us. I know it."
"Duncan," I said, "you're wearing sandals. Your feet must be pretty badly cut up by now."
"No," he said, "I'm fine." (I wasn't fine. The bramble had lacerated my feet, but I'd decided to block out that discomfort because it was unimportant.)
"There's something ahead of us," he repeated.
"Yes, more forest," I said. "It goes on for hundreds of miles." I thought about whether I had the strength to carry a kicking, struggling Duncan all the way back to the house. Probably not.
I looked up, the long trunks of trees reaching toward a kaleidoscope of wheeling, dimly light-spackled upper branches, amid a welter of leaves. In those few places where the light was right, I could see, floating, spore and dust and strands of cobweb. Even the air between the trees was thick with the decay of life, and as I type these words I wonder now if the underground is anything like deep forest, because I became accustomed to the deep forest that day. (It's more intense underground, Janice, because you can't match what you're seeing to anything you've experienced before.)
"Trust me," Duncan said, and grinned. He headed off again, at such a speed that I again had no choice but to follow him. In the shadows my brother's thin, wiry frame resembled more the thick, muscular body of a man. Was there any point at which he would stop, or I could convince him to stop?
Another half-hour or so-just as I could no longer identify our direction, so too I had begun to lose my sense of time-and a thick, suffocating panic had begun to overcome me. We were lost. We would never make it home. (You should have trusted me. You will need to trust me.)
But Duncan kept walking forward, into the unknown, through bramble and brush, over half-rotted tree branches, the thick loam of the forest floor rising at times to his ankles.
Then, to my relief, the undergrowth thinned, the trees became larger but spread farther apart. Soon, we could walk unimpeded, over a velvety compost of earth covered with moist leaves and pine needles. A smell arose from the ground, a rich smell, almost like coffee or muted mint. I heard again the hawk that had been wheeling overhead earlier, and an owl in the murk above us.
Duncan stopped for me then. He must have known how tired and thirsty I was, because he took my hand in his, and smiled as he said, "I think we are almost there. I think we almost are."
We had reached the heart-or a heart-of the forest, I think. We had reached a place that in a storm would be called the eye. The light that shown through from above did so in shafts as thin as the green fractures of light I can see from the corner of my eye as I type up this account. And in those shafts, the dust motes floated yet remained perfectly still. Now I heard no sound but the pad of our feet against the loamy earth.
Duncan stopped. I was so used to hurrying to keep up that I almost bumped into him.
"There," he said, pointing, a smile creasing his face.
And I gasped, for there, just ahead of us, stood a statue or idol.
Made of solid gray stone, riven through with fissures, splashed with light, overgrown with an emerald-and-crimson lichen, it depicted a face with large, wide eyes, a tiny nose, and a solemn mouth. The statue could not have been taller than three or four feet.
We walked closer, in an effortless glide, so enraptured by this vision, that we could forget the ache in our legs.
Iridescent beetles had woven themselves into the lichen beads of its smile, some flying around the object, effortless on tiny wings, heavy bodies drooping below the wings. Other insects had hidden in the fissures of the stone. What looked like a wren's nest decorated part of the top of the head. A whole miniature world had grown up around it. It was clearly the work of one of the native tribes that had fled into the interior when our ancestors had built Stockton and claimed the land around it. This much I knew from school.
"How?" I asked in amazement. "How did you know this was here, Duncan?"
Duncan smiled as he turned to me. "I didn't. I just knew there had to be something, and if we kept looking long enough, we'd find it."
At the time, while we stood there and drank in the odd beauty of the statue, and even as Duncan unerringly found our way home, and even after Mom and Dad, waiting in the backyard as the sun disappeared over the tree line, expressed their anger and disappointment at our "irresponsibility," especially mine, I never once thought about whether Duncan might be crazy rather than lucky, touched rather than decisive. I just followed him. (Janice, I lied to you, just a little. It's true I didn't know exactly where to find the statue, but I had already heard about from one of the older students at our school. He'd given me enough information for me to get a fairly good idea of where to go. So it wasn't preternatural on my part-it was based on a shred, a scrap, of information, as are all of my wanderings.)