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"These ones with the green fur," she said and giggled. "People thinkthey're just hills, but they're beasts."
"If you say so." My fingers plucked at the gra.s.s. "And the green fur grewall around, all around-"
"That's why it feels warm," said Liesle. "Don't pull its fur, Gramma. Itmight hurt it. 'Nen it'd get up. And spill us on the ground. And open its bigmouth-and stick out its great big teeth-" She clutched me wildly. "Gramma!"she cried, "Let's go home!"
"Oh, botheration!" I said, sitting up. The chill of the evening was like asplash of cold water. "Say, it is getting cold. We'll catch our death oflive-forevers if we lie out here much longer."
"But it's so warm and nice down here," sighed Mrs. Davidson.
"Not up here," I s.h.i.+vered. "Come on, younguns, I'll race you to the tent."
The moonlight wakened me. It jabbed down through a tiny rip in the tentabove me and made it impossible for me to go back to sleep. Even with my eyesshut and my back turned, I could feel the shaft of light tw.a.n.ging almostaudibly against my huddled self. So I gave up, and shrugging into afleece-lined jacket and wriggling my bare feet into my sneakers, I duckedthrough the tent flap. The night caught at my heart. All the shadow and silverof a full moon plus the tumble and swell, the ivory and ebony of cloudswelling up over Baldy. No wonder the moonlight had tw.a.n.ged through the tent.It was that kind of night-taut, swift, far and unfettered.
I sighed and tucked my knees up under the jacket as I sat on the stump.There are times when having a body is a big nuisance. Well, I thought, I'llstay out long enough to get thoroughly chilled, then I'll surely sleep when Icrawl back into my nice warm sleeping bag. My eyes followed the dark serratedtreetops along the far side of the creek to the velvety roll of the smallhills in the moonlight upstream, the thick silver-furredbeasts-who-slept-so-long. I smiled as I thought of Liesle.
Then there she was-Liesle-just beyond the tent, her whole body taut withstaring, her arms stiffly flexed at the elbows, her fingers crooked, her wholeself bent forward as though readying for any sudden need for pursuit-orflight.
She made an abortive movement as though to go back into the tent, and thenshe was off, running towards the hills, her bare white feet flas.h.i.+ng in themoonlight. I wanted to call after her, but something about the stillness ofthe night crowded the noise back into my throat, so I took after her, glad ofa good excuse to run, fleet-footed and free, through the crispness of thesilver night. A little farther, a little faster, a little lighter and Iwouldn't even have had to touch the ground.
I lost sight of Liesle, so I leaned against a tree and waited for my breathto catch up with me. Then I saw her, a wisp of darkness in her worn flannelpajamas, moving from one small hill to another, softly tiptoeing away acrossthem until the shadow of the aspen grove on the slope above swallowed her up.There was a pause as I wondered if I should follow, then she reappeared withthe same soft, careful step. She stopped just a few feet from me and plumpedherself down between two rounded knolls. She s.h.i.+vered in the icy air andsnuggled down tight in the curving corner. I could hear her talking.
"Move over, you. Keep me warm. There's eight of you. I counted. I like youin the night, but I'm scared of you in the day. You don't belong in the day."She yawned luxuriantly and I saw that she was sinking slowly between those twogra.s.sy hills. "You really don't belong in the night, either." Liesle went on."You better go back next time it's open." Only her head was visible now. Shewas all but swallowed up in the-in the what?
"Liesle!" I hissed.
She gasped and looked around. Suddenly she was sprawling out in the openagain on the sloping hillside, s.h.i.+vering. She glanced back quickly and thenbegan to cry. I gathered her up in my arms. "What's going on here, Liesle?"
"I had a dream!" she wailed.
I carried her back to the camp, sagging a little under her weight. Justbefore I dumped her down in front of her tent, I swear she waved over myshoulder, a furtive, quick little wave, back at the little sleeping hills.
Next day I determinedly stayed in camp when everyone else galloped off intothe far distance toward Katatki to look for arrowheads. I had to make a noise like elderly and weary, and I know my children suspected that I was up to somemischief, but they finally left me alone. The dust had hardly settled on thecurve downcreek before I was picking my way among the beast-hills.
I caught myself tiptoeing and breathing cautiously through my mouth,startled by the crunch of gravel and the sudden shriek of a blue jay. I satdown, as nearly as I could tell, between the same two hills where Liesle hadbeen. I pulled up a tuft of gra.s.s with a quick twinge of my thumb and fingers.Gra.s.s-that's all it was. Well, what had I expected? I unlimbered my shortprospector's pick and began to excavate. The sod peeled back. The sandy soilunderneath slithered a little. The pick clinked on small rocks. I unearthed abeer cap and a bent nail. I surveyed my handiwork, then shoved the dirt backwith the head of the pick. Sometimes it's fun to have too much imagination.Other times it gets you dirt under your fingernails.
I trudged back toward camp. Halfway there I stopped in mid-stride. Had Iheard something? Or felt something? A movement as of air displacing? I turnedand walked slowly back to the hillside.
Nowhere, nowhere, could I find the spot where I'd been digging. I kneltdown and picked up the only loose object around. A rusty beer cap.
The Davidsons' vacation was nearly over. We had another week after theywere to leave. I don't know how it happened-things like that are alwayshappening to us- but we ended up with Liesle and Jinnie jumping up and downecstatically together as all grownups concerned slowly nodded their heads. AndI had an extra grandchild for the next week.
Of course, Liesle was a little homesick the first night after her folksleft. After Jinnie had fallen asleep, she looked over at me in the glow of theColeman lantern, with such forlornness that I lifted the edge of my sleepingbag and she practically flung herself into it. It was a tight squeeze, butfinally she was snuggled on my shoulder, the crisp spray of her hair tickling my chin.
"I like you, Gramma," she said. "You're warm."
"You're warm, too," I said, feeling heat radiating from the wiry littlebody. I don't know what prompted my next question. Maybe it was that I wantedthere to be something in Liesle's play-pretend. "Am I as warm as the beasts?"
I felt her startled withdrawal. It was like having a spring suddenly coilbeside me.
"What are they going to do when it starts snowing again?" I asked into theawkward silence.
"I don't know," said Liesle slowly. "I don't know any beasts. Besides theirfur would keep them warm."
"It looks like just gra.s.s to me," I said. "Gra.s.s withers when cold weathercomes."
"It's 'sposed to look like gra.s.s," said Liesle. "So's no one will noticethem."
"What are they?" I asked. "Where did they come from?"
"I don't know any beasts," said Liesle. "I'm going to sleep."
And she did.
Liesle might as well have gone on home for all the outdoor activity she gotthat week with us. Bad weather came pouring through the pa.s.s in the mountains,and we had rain and fog and thunder and hail and a horrible time trying tokeep the kids amused. My idle words had stuck in Liesle's mind and festered inthe inactivity. She peered incessantly out of the tent flap asking, "How longwill it rain? Is it cold out there? It won't snow will it? Will there be ice?"
And when we had a brief respite after a roaring hailstorm and went out togather up the tapioca-sized stones by the buckets-full, Liesle filled bothhands and, clutching the hail tightly, raced over to the small hills. I caughtup with her as she skidded to a stop on the muddy trail.
She was staring at the beast-hills, frosted lightly with the hail. Sheturned her deep eyes to me. "It's ice," she said tragically.
"Yes," I said. "Little pieces of ice."
She opened her hands and stared at her wet palms. "It's gone," she said.
"Your hands are warm," I explained.
"Warmness melts the ice," she said, her eyes glowing. "They're warm."
'They could melt the little ice," I acknowledged. "But if it really froze-"
"I told them to go back," said Liesle. "The next time it's open."
"What's open?" I asked.
"Well," said Liesle. "It's down the path to the Little House. It's therock-it's a empty-it's to go through-" She slapped her hand back and forthacross her pants legs, ridding them of the melted hail. Her bottom lip waspouted, her eyes hidden. "It doesn't go into any place," she said. "It onlygoes through." Anger flared suddenly and she kicked the nearest hill. "Stupidbeasts!" she cried. "Why didn't you stay home!"
We started packing the day before we were to leave. Liesle scurried aroundwith Jinnie, getting under foot and messing things up generally. So I gavethem a lot of leftover odds and ends of canned goods and a box to put them inand they spent hours packing and unpacking. I had dismissed them from my mindand submerged myself in the perennial problem of how to get back into thesuitcases what they had originally contained. So I was startled to feel a coldhand on my elbow. I looked around into Liesle's worried face.
"What if they don't know the way back?" she asked.
"Of course they know the way back," I said. "They've driven it a dozentimes."
"No, I mean the beasts." She clutched me again. "They'll die in thewinter."
"Winter's a long way off," I said. "They'll be all right."
"They don't count like we do," said Liesle. "Winter's awful close."
"Oh, Liesle, child," I said, exasperated. "Let's not play that now. I'm much too busy."
"I'm not playing," she said, her cheeks flus.h.i.+ng faintly, her eyes refusingto leave mine. "The beasts-"
"Please, honey lamb," I said. "You finish your packing and let me finishmine." And I slammed the suitcase on my hand.
"But the beasts-"
"Beasts!" I said indistinctly as I tried to suck the pain out of myfingers. "They're big enough to take care of themselves."
"They're just baby ones!" she cried. "And they're lost, 'relse'n they'dhave gone home when it was open."
"Then go tell them the way," I said, surveying dismally the sweat s.h.i.+rt andslacks that should have been in the case I had just closed. She was out ofsight by the time I got to the tent door. I shook my head. That should teachme to stick to Little Red Riding Hood or the Gingerbread Boy. Beasts, indeed!
Late that evening came a whopper of a storm. It began with a sprinkle solight that it was almost a mist. And then, as though a lever were beingsteadily depressed, the downpour increased, minute by minute. In directproportion, the light drained out of the world. Everyone was snugly undercanvas by the time the rain had become a downpour-except Liesle.
"I know where she is," I said with a sigh, and s.n.a.t.c.hed my fleece-linedjacket and ducked out into the rain. I'd taken about two steps before my shoeswere squelching water and the rain was flooding my face like a hose. I hadsploshed just beyond the tents when a dripping wet object launched itself.a.gainst me and knocked me staggering back against a pine tree.
"They won't come!" sobbed Liesle, her hair straight and lank, streamingwater down her neck. "I kept talking to them and talking to them, but theywon't come. They say it isn't open and if it was they wouldn't know the way!"She was shaking with sobs and cold.
"Come in out of the wet," I said, patting her back soggily. "Everythingwill be okay." I stuck my head into the cook tent. "I got 'er. Have to wringher out first" And we ducked into the sleep tent.
"I told them right over this way and across the creek-" her voice wasm.u.f.fled as I stripped her T-s.h.i.+rt over her head. 'They can't see right overthis way and they don't know what a creek is. They see on top of us."
"On top?" I asked, fumbling for a dry towel.
"Yes!" sobbed Liesle. "We're in the middle. They see mostly on top of usand then there's us and then there's an underneath. They're afraid they mightfall into us or the underneath. We're all full of holes around here."
"They're already in us," I said, guiding her icy feet into the flannelpajama legs. "We can see them."
"Only part," she said. "Only the Here part. The There part is so'st wecan't see it." I took her on my lap and surrounded her with my arms and sheleaned against me, slowly warming, but with the chill still shaking her atintervals.
"Oh, Gramma!" Her eyes were big and dark. "I saw some of the There part.It's like-like-like a Roman candle."
"Those big heavy hills like Roman candles?" I asked.
"Sure." Her voice was confident. "Roman candles have sticks on them, don'tthey?"
"Look, Liesle." I sat her up and looked deep into her eyes. "I know youthink this is all for true, but it really isn't. It's fun to pretend as longas you know it's pretend, but when you begin to believe it, it isn't good.Look at you, all wet and cold and unhappy because of this pretend."
"But it isn't pretend!" protested Liesle. "When it was open-" She caughther breath and clutched me. I paused, feeling as though I had stepped off anunexpected curb, then swiftly I tucked that memory away with others, such asthe rusty beer cap, the slow ingestion of Liesle by the hills- "Forget about that," I said. "Believe me, Liesle, it's all pretend. Youdon't have to worry."
For a long rain-loud moment, Liesle searched my face, and then she relaxed.
"Okay, Gramma." She became a heavy, sleepy weight in my lap. "If you say so."
We went to sleep that last night to the sound of rain. By then it hadbecome a heavy, all-pervading roar on the tent roof that made conversationalmost impossible. "Well," I thought drowsily, "this is a big, wet,close-quotes to our summer." Then, just as I slipped over into sleep, I wa.s.surprised to hear myself think, "Swim well, little beasts, swim well."
It may have been the silence that woke me, because I was suddenly wideawake in a rainless hush. It wasn't just an awakening, but an urgent push intoawareness. I raised up on one elbow. Liesle cried out and then was silent. Ilay back down again, but tensed as Liesle muttered and moved in the darkness.Then I heard her catch her breath and whimper a little. She crawled cautiouslyout of her sleeping bag and was fumbling at the tent flap. A pale watery lightcame through the opening. The sky must have partially cleared. Lieslewhispered something, then groped back across the tent. I heard a series ofrustles and whispers, then she was hesitating at the opening, jacket over herpajamas, her feet in lace-trailing sneakers.
"It's open!" she whimpered, peering out. "It's open!" And was gone.
I caught my foot in the sleeping bag, tried to put my jacket on upsidedown,and got the wrong foot in the right shoe, before I finally got straightened upand staggered out through an ankle-deep puddle to follow Liesle. I groped myway in the wet grayness halfway to the Little House before I realized therewas no one ahead of me in the path. I nearly died. Had she already been suckedinto that treacherous gray rock! And inside me a voice mockingly chanted, "Notfor true, only pretend-"
"Shut up!" I muttered fiercely, then, turning, I sploshed at fullstaggering speed back past the tents. I leaned against my breathing tree tostop my frantic gulping of the cold wet air, and, for the dozenteenth time inmy life, reamed myself out good for going along with a gag too far. If I hadonly scotched Liesle's imagination the first- I heard a tiny, piercingly high noise, a coaxing, luring bird-like sound,and I saw Liesle standing in the road, intent on the little hills, her righthand outstretched, fingers curling, as though she were calling a puppy.
Then I saw the little hills quiver and consolidate and Become. I saw themlift from the ground with a sucking sound. I heard the soft tear of turf andthe almost inaudible tw.a.n.g of parting roots. I saw the hills flow into motionand follow Liesle's piping call. I strained to see in the half light. Therewere no legs under the hills-there were dozens of legs under-there werewheels-squares -flickering, firefly glitters- I shut my eyes. The hills were going. How they were going, I couldn't say.Huge, awkward and lumbering, they followed Liesle like drowsy mastodons inclose order formation. I could see the pale scar below the aspen thicket wherethe hills had pulled away. It seemed familiar, even to the scraggly rootspoking out of the sandy crumble of the soil. Wasn't that the way it had alwayslooked?
I stood and watched the beast-hills follow Liesle. How could such a troopgo so noiselessly? Past the tents, through the underbrush, across thecreek-Liesle used the bridge-and on up the trail toward the Little House. Ilost sight of them as they rounded the bend in the trail. I permitted myself abrief sigh of relief before I started back toward the tents. Now to gatherLiesle up, purged of her compulsion, get her into bed and persuaded that ithad all been a dream. Mockingly, I needled myself. "A dream? A dream? Theywere there, weren't they? They are gone, aren't they? Without bending a bladeor breaking a branch. Gone into what? Gone into what?"
"Gone into nothing," I retorted. "Gone through-"
"Through into what?" I goaded. "Gone into what?"
"Okay! You tell me!" I snapped. Both of us shut up and stumbled off downthe darkened path. For the unnum-beredth time I was catapulted into by Liesle.We met most unceremoniously at the bend in the trail.
"Oh, Gramma!" she gasped. "One didn't come! The littlest one didn't come!
There were eight, but only seven went in. We gotta get the other one. It'sgonna close! Gramma!" She was towing me back past the tents.
"Oh, yipes!" I thought dismally. "A few more of these shuttle runs and Iwill be an old woman!"
We found the truant huddled at the base of the aspens, curled up in acomparatively tiny, gra.s.s-bristly little hillock. Liesle stretched out herhands and started piping at the beast-hill.
"Where did you learn that sound?" I asked, my curiosity burning even in amad moment like this one.
"That's the way you call a beast-hill!" she said, amazed at my ignorance,and piped again, coaxingly. I stood there in my clammy, wet sneakers, andpresumably in my right mind, and watched the tight little hillock unroll andmove slowly in Liesle's direction.
"Make him hurry, Gramma!" cried Liesle. "Pus.h.!.+"
So I pushed-and had the warm feeling of summer against my palms, the sharpfaint fragrance of bruised gra.s.s in my nostrils, and a vast astonishment in mymind. I'll never get over it. Me! Pus.h.i.+ng a beast-hill in the watery chill ofa night hour that had no number and seemed to go on and on.
Well anyway, between Liesle's piping and my pus.h.i.+ng, we got the Least-onepast the tents (encore!) across the creek and down the trail. Liesle ranahead. "Oh, Gramma! Gramma!" Her voice was tragedy. "It's closing! It'sclosing!"
I hunched my shoulders and dug in with my toes and fairly scooted that dumbbeast down the path. I felt a protesting ripple under my hands and a recoillike a frightened child. I had a swift brief vision of me, scrabbling on thetrail with a beast-hill as Jerry had with Liesle, but my sudden rush pushed usaround the corner. There was Liesle, one arm tight around a tree trunk, theother outstretched across the big gray boulder. Her hand was lost somewhere inthe Anything that coalesced and writhed, Became and dissolved in the middle ofthe gray granite.
"Hurry!" she gasped. "I'm holding it! Pus.h.!.+"
I pushed! And felt some strength inside me expend the very last of itselfon the effort. I had spent the last of some youthful coinage that could neverbe replenished. There was a stubborn silent moment and then the beast-hillmust have perceived the opening, because against my fingers was a suddenthrob, a quick tingling and the beast-hill was gone-just like that. Theboulder loomed, still and stolid as it had been since the Dawn, probably-justas it always had been except-Liesle's hand was caught fast in it, clear uppast her wrist.
"It's stuck." She looked quietly over her shoulder at me. "It won't comeout."
"Sure it will," I said, dropping to my haunches and holding her close."Here, let me-" I grasped her elbow.
"No." She hid her face against my shoulder. I could feel the sag of herwhole body. "It won't do any good to pull."
"What shall we do then?" I asked, abandoning myself to her young wisdom.
"Well have to wait till it opens again," she said.
"How long?" I felt the tremble begin in her.