Authors: Amy Herrick
He had the class’s attention. Edward was awake.
“They’d put little wreaths of ivy on their heads and go after him. The poor guy didn’t have a chance. According to legend, they’d hunt him through the woods and when they caught him, they’d hold him down.”
The class waited.
Mr. Ross narrowed his eyes. “Some say they’d then tear him apart and eat him. When they were done, they’d return to their temple, singing and chanting, and holding aloft an infant child. A great celebration of feasting and merrymaking would take place among the people then and, voilà, by great coincidence, the sun would be noticed to be growing stronger in the days that followed.”
There was a long silence and an uncomfortable shuffling of feet.
“But where’d they get the baby from?” someone asked.
“Yes, indeed. Where
they get the baby from? Well, it was said that somehow it sprang from the blood of the one who was sacrificed.”
Robert now piped up and asked with some impatience, “What does any of this have to do with science?”
Mr. Ross ran his hand through the hair on his head. He didn’t have a lot of it and what he had now stuck up in uneven wisps. “Thank you, Robert. Where does science bring us? The ancient peoples didn’t know what we know. Early on, many of them began to chart the regular movements of the sun across the sky, but they didn’t understand
the sun moved as it did. They explained things with stories of wild women and Holly Kings and gods fighting the monsters of winter for twelve days. They could be pretty certain from the stories and observations they passed down from generation to generation that the cycle had been repeating itself over and over again. But at this time of the year, something appeared to be eating away at time itself, something that refused to make itself seen. The dark was so dark and the cold was so cold. How could they be sure that the end wasn’t upon them? It seemed wise to continue doing whatever it was that their parents and grandparents had done in the years before.
“But now it’s different, right? We have more information. We are able to look at things from the perspective of space and we can use telescopes. We can see that the seasons change because the earth orbits the sun at an angle. We can calculate the moment of the solstice to the second and we know that we have nothing to worry about. Right? This time of year is really no more dangerous than any other time of year. Winter vacation is in sight. We’ll soon all be busy celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwaanza and the little bits of ritual which have floated down to us from the past—Christmas trees, flying reindeer, burning lights of various kinds—these are just leftovers from stories that were meant to explain things that no one understood. The earth will tilt back toward the sun as it has always done and all will be well.
“But I just want you to remember that there are tipping points, when the balance of things gets so out of whack, there is no returning to the old cycles. Sometimes they arrive over what seem to be long periods of time. Sometimes they can arrive relatively quickly. There will be more ice ages. The earth’s orbit will change. Those things will almost certainly happen somewhat slowly. But global warming, nuclear winters, oil spills, tornadoes, earthquakes that send out tsunamis—those happen relatively fast. And perhaps there are forces out there that we are not yet acquainted with. Forces within forces. A surprise or two. It may be that one day the solstice will arrive and the balance
tip back. Who knows? It doesn’t do to get too comfy, my young friends.”
The end-of-the-period buzzer rang. For a moment nobody moved. Then there was a general stampede toward the exit, as if the whole class couldn’t wait to get out of the room.
Her dreams were sickening and roller coasterish. Voices kept whispering over her head and she heard nonsensical words. And there was the smell—a foul and rotten stinking of something. She tried to open her eyes, but her lids seemed to have been Krazy Glued together. Then she heard an unpleasant sound, a sound like bones cracking and then a noisy sucking.
Slowly, it came back to her: the journey through Prospect Park, the pale little man, the wind, the candy house, and the kerchiefed old lady at the door. Whatever she was lying on, it was prickly and uncomfortable. She shifted a little and, without even realizing she was doing it, let out a groan.
Immediately the cracking and sucking sounds stopped.
With an enormous effort Feenix managed to open one eye and then the other.
There wasn’t much light, but she saw right away that she was in a cage, the kind of cage you might keep a big dog in. She was lying curled up on some dusty straw. Next to her was where the smell was coming from. She could see the gristly white bones gleaming in the lamplight. A small mountain of them.
The inside of the house was not the same as the outside. It was a dark little dump of a place. The floors seemed to be dirt and the walls held up by bare wooden beams. There was a not-very-clean kitchen area and the only place to cook anything looked like the fireplace, which had a big iron pot hanging from a pole.
If this was a museum, it was a crummy one.
The old ladies were sitting at a wood-planked table eating with their fingers. There were three of them. Their only light was a single burning candle. At the sound of her groan, they had all stopped eating and turned to stare in her direction. The grease on their fingers glistened in the candlelight.
“She’s awake,” said one of them. Feenix thought it was the same voice that had greeted her at the door.
“Ooooh, goodie,” said another voice, unpleasantly high and excited. “Let me have the spectacles.”
“No,” said the third. “I will examine her first. I will have the spectacles,” and she snatched at something in the middle of the table and then rose and hobbled over to the cage. She bent down and examined Feenix, and Feenix examined her. The woman, if that’s what she was, was wearing a pair of thick-lensed glasses and a long black gown. A bunch of keys hung from a twisted belt of yarn around her waist. She had long, gray hair, a long, horselike face, and most charming of all, only one nostril.
Feenix tried to sit up, but bumped her head on top of the cage. “All right!” she said angrily. “Let me out of here.”
The old lady grinned.
“What is going on?” Feenix demanded. “What is this place?”
“The place is neither here nor there.”
“Let me out of this thing.” Feenix grabbed the sides of the cage and rattled the bars furiously.
The old lady with one nostril paid no attention to her demand, but stood there with her head tipped to one side. Meanwhile, the other two rose and made their way over to the cage. They peered down at her with interest. Red Kerchief, the one who had met her at the door, smiled and licked at her greasy fingers. The third one, who was very round, with tiny little pig’s eyes and a soft, pudding face, smiled happily.
Feenix rattled the cage again. “Let me out of here immediately.”
“She’s a sparky one, isn’t she?” said Piggy Face.
She came closer to the cage. Gingerly, she stuck out a hard, wrinkled old finger and prodded Feenix through the bars, then nodded to herself.
“You crazy old prunes!” Feenix hollered. “Let me out immediately! My friends are right behind me. Do you have any idea what the penalty is for kidnapping? I don’t know if they’ll put you in jail or the loony bin, but either way they’ll take your candy away.”
One Nostril laughed. “No, no. No need to worry. Your friends never even crossed over the wall. By now they will have forgotten all about you. And we have been waiting for you so patiently. You have the most intriguing smell. Are you not flattered that we chose you? How many get to see the inside of our happy little home?”
“What are you talking about?” Feenix demanded angrily. “How could you have chosen me? And for what?”
Red Kerchief had stopped licking her fingers. She leaned forward and said softly, “Do you think it was just random chance that brought you to us? Do you think it was just improbable good luck?”
Something in these words reminded Feenix of Mr. Ross, but she was too angry to think about it. She rocked the cage furiously back and forth. “Let me out of here!”
One Nostril licked her lips and stared down at her through the thick glasses. Then she said, “Hasn’t life been very dull? Have you not been seeking a great adventure?”
Feenix stopped shaking the cage for a moment. She stared at her with a terrible sinking feeling.
“You may call me Baba,” One Nostril said. “I am the oldest.”
As far as Feenix was concerned, they all looked about three hundred years old. “Okay, Baba. This is not funny. I need to get home before my mother has a coronary. You need to let me out of here.”
“All in good time, little mortal. If we let you out now you would never find your way. The paths would all bring you right back to us.”
Feenix laughed angrily. “What kind of joke is this? Who are you? What is going on?”
Baba smiled her pinched little smile again. “The stories told about us are countless. Surely your grandmother will have passed one or two on to you?”
“Did the Parks Department give you permission to put this house here?”
This made Baba laugh. “We are always here. It is just that at this time of year, the curtain between your side of the world and ours grows thin enough that some can see us.”
Piggy Face leaned in closer now and sniffed. “I will open the cage, shall I?”
Baba nodded slowly, staring at Feenix. “Yes. Let us get a closer look at her.” She lifted the latch on the cage and the door swung open by itself. Feenix climbed out stiffly. Then she stood up and stared at her captors. They were lined up in a row, peering at her, three old yentas bent and wrinkled like used candy bar wrappers.
Feenix crossed the room in two strides. She reached the front door and grabbed the knob. The door was locked. The key, Feenix had little doubt, was hanging from Baba’s belt.
The next day and the days after passed in a terrible dream. How this place could exist inside the familiar and ordinary world, Feenix had no idea. But she was pretty sure it was Dweebo’s stupid stone that had gotten her into this trouble. The old ladies could smell it. They were always sniffing at her—especially Piggy Face. Feenix had dropped it through the hole in her coat pocket, so that it fell deep down inside the lining. It was freezing in the cottage, and she never took her coat off. The witches seemed to think the scent was part of her own personal fragrance. Every time old Pudding Face got near Feenix, she groaned with anticipation.
Although the old ladies apparently had a sharp sense of smell, their eyesight was terrible and they only owned one pair of glasses, which they shared among themselves. They were always arguing about whose turn it was. Old Baba, who was clearly the boss, got them most of the time. The other two hobbled about the filthy place, bumping into the furniture and cursing and describing the horrible things they would do to each other if they were younger.
Feenix thought of ways she would get back at Edward for getting her into this mess.
During the day they let her out and made her work. Red Kerchief, who was called Skuld, delighted in coming up with random, bat-brained chores for Feenix to do. Her favorite was making her unsnarl tangled up webs of old gray yarn and then roll them into balls. There were hundreds of these balls lining the dusty shelves of the cottage. Or she would make Feenix scrub the huge sink full of greasy pots with a toothbrush and then sweep the floor with a little bundle of sparrow feathers tied together with string. It was clear that she found this amusing and entertaining. If Feenix protested, Red Kerchief would grab her ear and twist it.
She had discovered on the first night that all three of them were unbelievably strong. When Feenix had lunged for the keys on old Baba’s belt, Baba had lifted her up and thrown her clear across the room. Trying to fight with Skuld about stupid chores was equally useless.
“You dare to complain? Do you have any idea how few mortals are given this chance to enter the world in back of the world, especially in these days when the great forces are so little remembered? Here is the adventure you asked for. The very least you can do is perform these small tasks we give to you. Now, return to work or you will find yourself with something to complain about.”
While she was working, Piggy Face, who was called Gorgo, often waddled over and pinched a piece of Feenix’s face or arm between her fingers, rolling it and feeling it, snuffling like a congested pig as she did.
“Oh what a lovely, sweet-fleshed child you are. It is so nice of you to come and celebrate the Stoppage with us.”
Only Baba One Nostril did not touch Feenix, but what she did was almost worse. She would come right up close to Feenix and then study her as if she was trying to figure something out.
“What is it? What are you hiding?”
she would whisper.
Feenix tried constantly to come up with an escape plan.The windows in the cottage were high up and very small and Feenix didn’t think she could fit through any of them, but now and then one of the old ladies would open the front door and leave the house. She watched very carefully when this happened.
The one who went out would get to wear the glasses and the other two would stay behind, bickering and ordering Feenix around. When the third one returned, she would usually be carrying a small, limp animal—a squirrel or a bird or a rabbit. Once there was a poor cat. The old ladies would boil it, or make Feenix turn it on a spit over the fire and then they would sit down at the table and eat the meat with their hands, crunching and sucking away greedily. They would wash these meals down with what Feenix guessed was wine. After a couple of glasses they would begin to argue about who would get the last pieces of meat or whose turn it was with the spectacles. Generally, Baba won the argument, although occasionally, if she fell asleep, Skuld and Gorgo would have a pinching match until one of them gave in.
The pile of old bones and bits of gristle in one corner of the room grew steadily higher. Luckily, they did not offer to share these delicacies with Feenix. They fed her, instead, bread and dried cheese. Feenix began to yearn desperately for an apple or a banana or a piece of celery, but there was nothing like that in the cottage.
How many days this went on for, Feenix was not sure. Time in the cottage seemed even more shifty than it did back in the real world. But she could see that the old ladies were growing more and more excited about this “Stoppage” thing. It was going to happen soon, whatever it was.