They worked their way slowly up the hill, him in the lead. Tangles of dry cedar limbs picked at their sweaters and poked at their skin. Every step forward was a puzzle, a sequence of careful foot placement, firm hands on branches, and inelegant bends. He forged a path with irresponsible enthusiasm. She mostly ducked and waited.
He stopped near the top of the hill. A flat bit of granite lay barely visible through ankle-high grass, a tiny bald patch in the surrounding thicket. He looked through the trees to his right, the sumac-choked slope descending to rows of withered corn stalks. Was it really this close to the highway? The occasional minivan sped by, pushing a polite whoosh across the field.
Gently squeezing her hand, he turned around. “This is it.”
“It’s lovely,” she offered breathlessly.
“It is lovely,” he agreed, hesitating. “There was something here…”
The early October air carried hints of sweet, earthy things — compost and manure, leaves and loam — sharpened by the slight chill. They looked down into the valley opposite the cornfield at an oak grove. The mighty trees stood proudly apart, eschewing the close familiarity enjoyed by the maples, the ash, the spruce. A royal carpet filled the wide spaces between the trunks, red and gold leaves resting lightly upon each other as if each had been purposefully placed. Rays of warm autumnal light decorated the noble arches above their heads.
His first time here had been as a young explorer, master of the woods. Those were the summers he painted his fingers purple with wild grape and black raspberry, his arms and cheeks orange with bloodroot. He knew the plants — the ferns, the honeysuckle, the jack-in-the-pulpit. He followed the narrow deer trails between endless ridges for hours. The burrs, the barbed wire, and the mosquitoes were less of a nuisance than the abundant stinging nettles.
At that age, a journey through the woods was an inspired wander; he was never so far from the house as to get truly lost, but the hidden worlds in each valley were only coincidentally adjoined. The hickory tree by the lake, the house built of grapevine, the wide clearing around a single massive tree; lacking permanence of location, they couldn’t always be found at will. This valley, this playground for elves, he had only seen once.
And now he had found it again, but something was lost.
In the darkness ahead, two beams of light peeked shyly around the corner. With growing confidence they traced the wide curve, unveiling clumps of tall ditch grass before shooting down the asphalt strip. For two proud seconds they blazed with abandon, then dropped back fearfully to more humble illumination.
He blinked, flicking off his brights. “It’s funny,” he started.
She slipped into his pause, “You’re funny.”
“Yes, I try. But I can’t get over it, you know? I remember that place. Still have dreams about it. I knew it wouldn’t be the same, but man. It’s so tiny.”
“Well, naturally. You’re a big tall man now, baby!” She gripped his leg for emphasis. The moonlight played on her tired eyes, reveling in weary jest. She leaned back heavily in her seat, enjoying the hot air at work on her toes — the defrost setting.
He smiled. “That’s not it, though. I mean, it’s part of it for sure. But it went on forever; I could’ve grown ten feet, and I still would’ve needed half a day to walk across. There were never borders, at least not any I knew about. I guess I know too much.”
A sniff and a snort. “Know too much?”
“You know what I mean.” He stopped. “Or at least as well as I do, anyway. I think before, when I was younger, I knew the woods in my heart. I knew the lights, the sounds, the loneliness. But now I’ve seen maps, and I’ve driven by too fast. I’ve been too far away, and it’s in my head.”
“You’re too old for magic,” she mumbled sleepily, the words barely making it from her mouth.
“It seems so. But why? There’s still so much I don’t know. Learning more only provokes new questions. It’s not just the knowing. What takes it from curiosity to awe, you know? What’s missing from the mystery?”
She didn’t answer. Her eyes were shut, her breathing steady. At home with him, at home with the world. He saw the stars and felt he could grab them, like he could reach out his arms and wrap up everything in sight.
“Maybe I’m not afraid anymore.”
She called him on Wednesday, shortly after six.
“I think we did it,” she quietly proclaimed.
“Are you serious? Do you know for sure?” He stood up and closed the office door. With the receiver in one hand, he began pacing in front of the desk.
“Not one-hundred percent, but I feel it. It’s — I think it’s real this time. The doctor says not to come in for two weeks.”
The silence that followed grew full with expectation, gaining weight with each unanswered second.
“That’s incredible! How do you feel?”
“Happy. Scared. Everything at once.” Her breath whistled and roared, nervous elation pouring through the phone.
“I’ll head home right away.”
He gently hung up. He stared out the window, watching the sunset reflect off the distant glass towers. The soft evening light glowed with a brilliant uncertainty. O joyous mystery! O frightful unknown!
Zach Walchuk is a software developer and writer living in Denver, Colorado. He shares life with his wonderful wife Claire and is expecting his first son in October. You can see more from him by following on Medium and Twitter.