1. Strange Weather
The house shook.
Meg lay awake in the new double bed in Charles Wallace's old bedroom, her fingers sunk deep into Ananda's short, warm fur, watching thin branches like outstretched hands scraping and batting against the window glass. Though the night was cloudless, wind roared through the eaves and rattled the shutters. Its voice was wild and plaintive. The window was closed tight and latched, but a sly draft still shifted and belled the curtains. Meg clutched nervously at Ananda, drawing a low, warning chuff of air from the drowsing dog.
--It's not my fault,-- Meg complained silently. --It's this weather. It's this house. It's Calvin away in California and the twins away at school, and Mother and Father still not back from town. Anything could happen.--
This was not untrue, but it was somewhat unlikely, and Meg knew it. She was anxious, that was all. Polly and Charles were snug in their beds in the twins' room across the hall, and the house in which she had grown up was too far out of the way to attract dangerous, or even unexpected, visitors. Her parents would return from the village meeting before the clock struck eleven; they had probably lingered over coffee, to continue whatever discussions the council had laid before them.
Still, the howl of the wind gave Meg a chill that was more than simply physical. She sat up in the bed, the quilt pooling around her. At her side, Ananda lifted her head and turned to look at Meg curiously.
"It's just this weather," Meg said, and swung her legs over the side of the bed.
Ananda chuffed again, flicked an ear, and laid her head pointedly across her paws.
"Oh, that's fine for you," Meg said crossly. She took her robe from where it hung over the bed post and belted it snugly about her waist. "You don't have kids to worry about."
In fact, Meg had checked on Polyhymnia and Charles less than half an hour ago, but the creaks and groans of the house, once so very familiar, were nothing like the home sounds she was used to now. She was a mother now, and a wife, and as such should be firmly above the childish shiver skating up her spine. But in her parents' house, some part of her would always be the old hapless, helpless Meg -- never quite as much of anything as she ought to have been.
It was this part of Meg that slid her feet into her shapeless terry slippers and eased quietly into the hallway through the half-open door. She was not frightened, not as such, and so she was not sneaking -- not precisely. She was cautious, though, and she turned on no lights to guide her progress.
Across the hall, the door to the children's room was also halfway open. Darkness yawned within, and all was silent but for the eerie keen of the unseasonably strong wind. This was normal, and when Meg pushed the door open with a deep creak of old hinges, the pale silver light from the window revealed that everything else was normal, too. Polly slept in her usual curl, knees tucked up to her chest, palms clasped together under her round cheek. Charles slept peacefully as well, striped with moonlight through the bars of his crib.
All was well.
Meg watched them for a moment, her daughter and her son -- so strange to think of herself as a mother now. The hoped-for sense of certainty, of being qualified, had not manifested itself when Polly was born, and not when Charles was born, either. She still felt gawky and ignorant most days, as if some vital part of her inner self had never quite left eighth grade social studies. Her own adulthood took her by surprise when she saw traces of it in the eyes of strangers, or in the clear-eyed pretty face in her mirror. Polly and Charles could not be argued with, however; they were indelible proof that odd little Margaret Murray had grown up.
Meg smoothed Polly's hair gently, tugged Charles' blanket down to cover his toes, and slipped quietly back into the hallway. She shook her head; she felt a little foolish now. The wind still hammered at the house, and the house still shuddered before it, but with her children safe -- and with Ananda so blissfully unconcerned -- Meg was more than happy to believe her fears the product of isolation and an active imagination. She thought of how Sandy and Dennys would have laughed at her, and laughed softly at herself on their behalf.
She wished her parents were home; she wished Calvin were not at a conference in Monterey; and she wished the wind would ease before it pulled all the shingles from the roof. But she was not really afraid anymore. Not now.
Without a conscious decision on her part, her feet carried her down the hallway, padding softly along the wooden floors, down the stairs, through the family room, toward the kitchen. There was a light on; the closed door was outlined in golden light. Though she didn't remember leaving the light on, Meg was not overly concerned. Perhaps she had left it on and forgotten it. Or perhaps her parents had turned it on, before they had left.
As she approached the door, the last remnants of her upstairs fears dissipated suddenly, inexplicably. She paused at the threshold with her hand flat against the wood, its grain smooth and silky under her fingers, and it was as if she could feel the benign pulse of the house all around her, here with her hand on the door to its heart.
--Cocoa,-- she thought suddenly, --That will be the perfect remedy for nerves on a cold and lonely night.-- A sense of peace and warmth came over her, and she pushed the door open, smiling without quite knowing why.
"I thought I'd have to come up and find you," her brother said, smiling back.
"Charles!" Meg said.
Her youngest brother's blue eyes danced merrily. He pushed a mug of cocoa across the table toward the opposite chair as if to invite her to sit down and drink, but at the last minute he shoved his own chair back and strode toward her. He was tall --so tall, Meg thought, when did he get so tall,-- and his blond hair curled into his eyes and around his ears, uneven and unruly. She had only a moment to drink him in before he crashed into her, wrapping his arms around her middle and squeezing the breath out of her, lifting her off her feet.
"Meg," he said simply, a quiet whisper in her ear.
She squeezed back, grinning fiercely, and took him by the shoulders and pushed to make him set her down. In her slippered feet she had to look up to meet his eyes. "I can't believe it," she said, shaking her head at him. She didn't let go, for fear he'd vanish as quickly as he'd come. "Charles Wallace."
He was rail thin, gangling. His wrists extended inches past the cuffs of his red sweatshirt and his ankles showed beneath the frayed hem of his blue jeans. He looked underfed, Meg thought critically, and exhausted, and unbearably calm.
She shook him none too gently, and shoved him back a step. "I knew there was something different in the house," she said triumphantly. "I knew it when the wind started. Ananda knew it, too, but I think she knew all along that it was you."
"You knew, too," Charles said. He sat down again, and curled his mug of cocoa in close to his chest.
Meg sat, too, and drank, holding his gaze over the rim of her mug. He wasn't wrong, not exactly; she had been afraid, it was true, but then she was still afraid. Mostly, she thought, she had been aware -- of a difference in the bricks and boards of the house, in the air between the walls. Aware, too, of something almost, something strange and disruptive just ahead. It was that sense of imminence that had pulled her to her children's bedsides, just to check, just to see. But even then, she hadn't felt that she or Polly or Charles were in danger. She had felt as if she were in something's path, something implacable and unaware, but not -- maybe not entirely unwelcome. And so maybe she had known, somehow. Just a little.
The chocolate was good, thick and sweet and just the right temperature. "How long have you been here?"
"Not long," he said, nodding at her mug. "Just long enough. I really did think I'd have to go up and get you; I tried to call you, but you couldn't hear me." His eyes and his voice were slightly reproachful. "You used to listen."
"I still listen," Meg said defensively. She glared across the table, folding her arms. "I've just gotten used to not hearing you."
"Oh, Meg. Please don't be cross with me. I've missed you. I didn't mean to be away so long." He took her hand and squeezed it, like he had when he was a little boy in need of comfort. His fingers were long and wrapped all the way around hers now.
She was cross; she didn't want to be, but couldn't help it. Two years had passed since Charles Wallace had vanished from her guest bedroom without a word of goodbye; his backpack and his books had gone with him, so Calvin wouldn't let her call the police. When she'd told her parents, Father had taken off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes and sighed a tired, aged sigh. He told us he might have to be away, Mother had said. There had been sadness in her eyes, but also a quiet glow of pride. He said we should try to think of it as going off to school.
Meg had tried to think of it that way. She'd tried to think of that unexpected weekend visit as his goodbye. --If only he had told me,-- she thought, and swallowed back something clinging and unpleasant. It left a hollow of wrongness inside her, jangling and fragile. She pulled her hand away from him and folded it in her lap, but the heat of his fingers had left a mark on her that didn't want to cool. She wanted to reach back and take his hand again, but couldn't quite make herself move.
Charles left his hand on the table and regarded her steadily. She could almost feel him against the shutters of her mind -- thinking and studying, wondering. Charles Wallace had always been able to read her better than anyone else, and she had always been able to read him when she wanted to. When she had to, at any rate. It had saved his life once. Possibly more than once.
--Oh, Charles, why did you have to go?-- she thought miserably, hoping he could hear her. --Why didn't you come back sooner? Why didn't you tell me? Why have you come back now? Will you stay?-- She loved Sandy and Dennys, loved Calvin and Polly and little Charles, her brother's namesake, but she'd felt Charles Wallace's absence from her life every day that he was gone. More even than Calvin, Charles Wallace had been the one who could tell when she was feeling uneven and vicious toward the world, the one who always knew when to come to her and how to make things right again. It wasn't fair that he'd left the way he had; it wasn't fair!
"I'm really very sorry, Meg." Charles Wallace's hand shifted as if he meant to pull it back, and it was this that unlocked Meg's rigid muscles. Her hand shot out and grabbed his before he could pull it out of reach, and she held on tight, so tight her fingers turned stark white and started to hurt.
"Do you have to go away again?" she demanded, ashamed of the fifteen-year-old's whine that underlaid her adult voice.
"Not right away," Charles said. His voice was firm and reassuring, even if the words weren't. It was deeper than Meg remembered, too. Charles had never gone through the awkward crackle-voiced stage other boys did. The twins had driven her insane when their time came, sounding like identical badly scratched records every time they spoke. Charles Wallace's voice, though, had changed almost unnoticeably over a period of years, descending in a graceful curve toward the voice he would have as a man. When he'd left, there had still been hints of a child's pitch in his speech. That was gone now, replaced by a warm, grave tenor.
And -- Not right away, he had said. "What does that mean? Not tonight? Not this week?"
"Little Charles hasn't even had a chance to know you."
"He will, if he's meant to. I don't know what will happen next week or next month or next year, Meg, I can't make promises like that. I have to be where I'm needed."
"You're needed here! I need you!"
Charles Wallace dropped his gaze from hers. "I know," he said, his eyes fixed on their joined hands. "But you know there are things I have to do. You've always known that."
"I didn't know it would mean you had to leave," Meg said bitterly. She did love him, it was true; she did need him. But now those things lay very heavy in her heart, and an almost unthinkable urge to lash out at Charles rose up in her, to say hurtful things, things that would make him feel the way she did. It was that, more than anything, that stopped her tongue; she couldn't hurt Charles Wallace, not like that. Not on purpose.
She took a breath and released it, and gentled her hold on his hand. She could let this go for now; later, she would find a way to make him understand. "Where did you go, Charles?" Meg asked. "Can you tell me?"
"Oh, I can do better than that," he said. Relief washed over him, visibly brightening his eyes and bringing color back into his cheeks. He stood up to his full height and pulled her up beside him. His face broke into a sunny, boyish grin. "I can show you."
2. The Boy in the Ruin
There was a pull Meg felt somewhere in her middle; a swift, warm wind; a darkness. When light returned, Meg felt both refreshed and disheveled. Her hair tumbled about her face, the belt of her robe had come undone, and one of her slippers had come off. Cool green grass, springy and wet with dew, cushioned her bare right foot and slid between her toes.
It was night still, but not a dark night and not a cold one. A gentle breeze circled around Meg's body, playing in her hair and tugging at the hem of her robe. Silver light filled the clearing she stood in, seeming to come from the grass and the trees themselves. Above, the sky was painted in deep blue, divided by a pale ribbon of dense stars.
She looked at Charles Wallace, frowning. He didn't notice. His eyes were on a tall pillar of stone on the far side of the clearing, his white face serene. "You could have warned me," she said sharply, and went to retrieve her missing slipper. "You know I don't tesser well."
He turned to her and smiled. It made him look like a child again.
"I'm better at it than Father is," he said conspiratorially, as if
imparting a great secret. "I've had more practice."
"Mrs. Whatsit had had lots of practice, too--"
"--and we didn't go through Shadow." Charles came to her and put his hand on her arm. "It's all right, Meg. We're safe as houses here. And you don't have to worry about Polyhymnia and my namesake, either; we're elsewhere, but we're also before."
Meg released a breath she hadn't been aware of holding. "I still wish you'd warned me."
"I'm sorry. I didn't think about it. I was just glad they let you come."
"My teachers. Father did tell you I was away at school, didn't he?"
"Yes," Meg snapped. "Someone felt I deserved an explanation. I just thought you were away at ... at some genius school somewhere."
Charles Wallace grinned and shrugged, his hands thrust into his pockets. "I suppose that's not far off. This has been my school room. We always knew I wasn't cut out for a traditional education."
Meg knew of several elementary and high school teachers who would not disagree with Charles Wallace's self-evaluation. His marks had always been poor -- worse even than Meg's had been, and that was a stretch. Meg's problem had been impatience; she knew too much, and too many shortcuts, and it took too long to get to things she wanted to learn. With Charles it had been different. Meg thought he could have fit in if he'd wanted to, but his mind wandered. His teachers had complained that he lacked discipline and direction; what he'd really lacked was the heart for it. It hadn't helped that he was such a kind and docile child, overall. He was genuinely sorry when he frustrated them, and genuinely happy to do whatever they asked of him to set things right.
As long as it wasn't schoolwork. Meg wondered if things were any better here, and then thought, --Of course they are. This is where he belongs.-- A cold shiver went through her at that, and she edged closer to Charles.
"Well," she said. "Where are these teachers of yours?"
"They're not coming. They'll watch, I think, from somewhere I can't feel them. I'll explain everything, Meg, I promise. Just." He smiled again -- a crooked half-smile -- and tugged Meg by the hand. "Just come with me first, okay? I want to show you where I live."
There was a path behind the standing stone, well-worn, dirt packed down so tightly it felt almost like pavement beneath her feet. The branches of the trees arched overhead and crossed; the effect was like walking down a long, solemn hall. The hall curved around the base of a hill, upon which fir-like trees stood in solemn blue marches. As they climbed, the path grew rocky and the trees stood closer together, blotting out the starlight. The warm wind had turned cool; Charles Wallace had pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt, and Meg thought soon she would be able to see her breath.
The path wound up and up. They didn't talk as they climbed; something about the air, maybe the taste of it, or the feel of it, discouraged conversation. Meg wondered where they were. Not Earth; the trees were wrong, somehow. They bore a close resemblance to the Christmas trees in the twins' garden, but they smelled wrong. Not the sweet, peppery scent of pines or the rich, clean scent of firs, but something both more delicate and more earthy. --Like honey,-- Meg thought suddenly. --These trees smell like honey.--
Though the path was long, it didn't seem to take a great deal of time to arrive at the top of it. The trees -- Meg was already calling them honey trees in her head -- thinned, and then disappeared altogether. By then Meg had decided that she was on another world, a world that was immensely old. She stopped when the path opened out onto the flat top of the hill, letting Charles continue on a few steps before he turned back to look at her. He waited, his eyes steady and clear and somehow happy; happier, perhaps, than Meg had ever seen him.
Happier than he'd ever been at home.
She went to him. Together they stood in the center of a ring of tall pillars. Her first impression had been that these were standing stones, like the Druids were said to have built on their own world. But no; these were not natural. They were constructed: tall, smooth columns of curved stone that had been shaped with intelligent intent. In the open air they glowed with reflected starlight as if they were lit from within. On the surface, letters in a script Meg didn't recognize wound up in a continuous spiral.
"You can touch them," Charles Wallace said softly. "It's all right."
Meg went to the nearest one, and raised her hand to trace over the
lettering. The words -- if they were words; they could have been merely
ornament, Meg supposed, but she didn't really believe that -- were not
carved into the columns. Nor did they seem to be inlaid; she could find
no seam between the black strokes of the inscription and the white stone
of the pillars themselves. Instead, it seemed as if the words were
floating within the white stone, pressing against its surface from the inside.
"What does it say?" she whispered. Though they were alone, the silence didn't seem to want to be broken.
Charles shrugged. He stepped up beside her, his arms loose and relaxed, his hands slipped into his pockets for warmth. He gazed at the column with an expression of fondness and familiarity, as if it were an old friend he'd missed while he was away.
He blinked, and it was as if a spell had been broken. He turned to her as if just noticing she was there. "Nobody knows," he said. "This place was old when the people who found it were young, and the people who found it were stars."
"But...what is this place? Where are we?"
"Persephone calls it Eliriel, but I think she just made it up. If it ever had a name, it was forgotten a long time ago. Demeter says it's a planet that was once Shadowed, and died breaking free. She says it's just coming back; the trees, the grass, the air. It's all new, but everything else here is old."
"Persephone and Demeter are your teachers?"
"Yes. Those aren't their real names, of course. I can't pronounce those. But they take me in shifts; Persephone in the spring and summer, and then Demeter takes over in the fall. They have their own work, I think; I'm sort of a side project."
"Oh, really, Charles."
"No, I mean it." He smiled at Meg, then back up at the pillar. "At home, I'm new," he said. "Different. I stand out too much. But out here, I'm... a mildly interesting spark from a world that's in love with its own darkness." He spread his arms wide, and tilted his head back, as if he were drinking in the light from the stars. When he dropped his arms and looked at her again, some of that light still shimmered in his eyes. "Of course, now that I'm here, I'm getting more interesting by the minute."
Meg laughed. Her voice rang out and echoed off the columns, rising and rising into the night sky. It was a relief, and a joy, and Charles Wallace laughed with her, and when they were done Charles pulled her into his arms and hugged her tightly, and she hugged back just as hard. It was as if everything that had gone before was merely prelude, and this was their true moment of reunion. She reached up -- up! -- and ruffled his hair, grinning.
"You've always been fascinating to me, Charles."
"And never any trouble at all," he said, smiling.
"Never any more than you were worth." Her own smile faded a little. "You did keep things interesting," she said. "I don't want to lose that."
"You've got two children, and no doubt more on the way, who will keep things more than interesting enough for you for a while. You're doing what you're meant to do."
"There are all kinds of ways of doing what we're meant to do. Are you certain marching off alone into the dark is the best way for you?"
"It's not the dark I'm marching into!" Charles stared at Meg, his eyes wide with hurt. "It's the light, and you know it. Why can't you understand that I don't belong--"
"With me," Meg said.
"No." Charles shook his head firmly. "You always do that, you rush ahead instead of listening, and end up in the wrong place. I don't belong where I'm not needed, and I know you need me because I'm your little brother, Meg -- I need you, too. I always will. But if I can make things better by going where I'm sent -- even if I'm sent away from my family -- then that's where I belong. And you have to let me go, because it's -- it's selfish not to. It's selfish to let our own wants come before the greater good."
"And it's hubris to think you know the greater good," Meg said. "You always think you know what's best, and you've been wrong a fair percentage of the time. You're wrong now if you think leaving us all behind is the only way to serve your calling."
Charles Wallace sighed, and rubbed tiredly at his forehead. His hand shook a little, and Meg hated that she'd turned their laughter into this, but she saw no other way to get through to him. He was too smart for his own good; he thought his way through problems that could only be solved with feeling. Meg knew that, because she had the opposite problem.
"Can't we let it go for now?" he said finally. "There's time to talk it all through when we're done. I promise I'll hear you out."
"And do just what you intended to do, after."
"I haven't said I'm leaving forever, Meg."
She smiled at him sadly. "You haven't said you aren't, either."
3. Meg Wakes Up
They returned the way they had come, following the spiral path down through the honey-tree groves and into the small clearing with the single standing stone. In contrast to the strange regality of what she'd seen above, Meg thought this quiet space seemed warm and almost friendly. She liked it; possibly she was getting that from Charles Wallace, but she liked it all the same.
"All right, Charles," she said, trying for a lighter tone to ease the silent tension between them. "I've seen your classroom, and I've seen your dorm room, too, I think. Now I'm sleepy and cold, and my slippers are soaked through. Is there any chance we could go home?"
"I'd like that," Charles Wallace said. "There will be more to do soon, maybe even tonight, but I don't feel like it will start here. Will you come with me, Meg?" He watched her, not pleading, not pressuring, just... waiting. "It's kind of my final exam, and they said it would be okay."
Meg squeezed her brother's fingers. "I'll come," she said.
"Good." Charles Wallace let out a long breath, and his shoulders loosened. Meg shook her head in wonder; he'd actually thought there was a chance she wouldn't.
When they arrived in the kitchen again, the cocoa Charles Wallace had prepared was still just the temperature Meg liked. She took it with her to check on the children, who were asleep and dreaming peacefully, just as she had left them. At the stairs to the attic, she held the mug carefully in one hand and slipped her arm around Charles Wallace's waist. His arm went around her shoulders and they stood quietly in the moonlit dark. Though she had thought of Charles Wallace often, and wished he would come home, this was the first time she was fully aware of how much she had missed him. For the first time since he'd gone away, Meg felt she had come all the way back home.
"You should sleep," Charles said finally, turning her toward the door of his old bedroom. "I think I'll be called soon, and I'm not sure where we'll have to go."
"What will we tell Mother and Father?"
Charles Wallace shrugged. "What have we always told them?"
"The truth," Meg said. "But this seems so secretive. Wandering off to other planets in the dead of night, and now resting up so we can probably do it again."
"It's a bit clandestine," Charles Wallace agreed, and Meg couldn't help smiling. He might be taller than she, and he might be somehow more now even than he'd been before, but his voice still took on the old trace of smugness when he used one of his new words.
"I suppose what I really mean is, when will we tell them?"
"When there's something to tell," Charles said. "Soon, I think. But sleep first. In the morning, I think I'll know more." He bent down and kissed her brow, a strange thing he had never done (been able to do) before; it made her feel young and protected, as if their ages were reversed, as if she were his little sister, in need of looking out for.
Then he snatched her mug from her fingers and drank half her cocoa down, neat and quick, before handing it back. The illusion was broken. She laughed, and gave him a shove toward the attic stairs. "Go to bed," she ordered, reasserting herself as eldest. "You've got school tomorrow."
The wind had calmed but not abated. Meg lay awake in her bed again, her fingers trailing absently through Ananda's warm fur. She heard her parents come home, their voices rising and falling, a harmony as familiar to her as breathing. Eventually she heard their footsteps in the hall, checking in on Polly and Charles; she thought she might go and speak to them, tell them Charles Wallace was home, but something in her said, Not yet.
Their footsteps retreated toward their bedroom, and the house settled into quiet. It was old, and had an old house's sounds -- creaks of wood, rattles of pipes. Settling sounds, Mother called them, though Meg privately thought the old homestead had had more than enough time to settle. She listened, comforted, the quality of the night drastically changed now that she could feel her family within it. It wrapped around her like a warm, worn blanket, and bore her softly into sleep.
At first, nothing.
No, not nothing; Nothing was X, and Nothing was violence and annihilation. This was... absence, Meg thought, upon rising out of it. She felt as if she had been swimming in a dark, warm lake or sea without shape or name or substance, and now she stood dripping on its shore. She was naked, she discovered, and for a moment she felt ashamed and exposed. But the shore was silent and empty, and stretched into blankness on either side of her unoccupied by any other presence. Unbroken by tree or by stone.
She was aware of dreaming and aware of the dream, but the dream was made of tough materials. The fine white sand felt like sand falling between her fingers and pushing up between her toes. The water felt like water as it ran down her skin, and the wind felt like a cool wind as it wisped the water away until she was dry. The beach ascended inland up a low slope and Meg followed it.
At the top of the slope, the sand became a light and clayish dirt, packed tight and smooth. It was broken by low brush and sporadic patches of pale green grass. It stretched to the horizon, as far as Meg could see; every horizon except the one occupied by the water. The light seemed to come from everywhere above, an unbroken dome of soft grey luminescence -- like an overcast day, but too smooth and unvaried for clouds. Meg could find no way to orient herself here, so she called the water south, and walked north onto the scrub plain.
As she walked, she became aware that she was clothed now. Her shirt was long-sleeved, soft white cotton that fell over the waist of her blue jeans. She wore sturdy, comfortable boots and under them, warm thick socks. Her hair, still damp from the lake (or sea, it could have been a sea) was tied back loosely into a ponytail, with shorter strands falling free around her face. It was so perfectly the way she looked to her own mind's eye that she knew these were clothes of her own unconscious making. She wondered briefly what else she could do here, what other powers she might wield, if she only tried. A dizzying sense of strength and possibility washed over her at the thought, and she shied away from it instinctively. She could change things here, she thought; she could mold the land and the sky and the air and herself; but then she would never know where the dream was taking her, and it seemed very important that she should know.
Hours passed, or minutes, or days, and eventually the scrub plain gave way to a stunted pine forest. The leaden sky never changed; its light neither shifted nor wavered as she walked. At times she grew tired and thought it might be nice to lie down in one of the small grassy patches and sleep for a while; but then she reminded herself that she was dreaming, and to sleep in the middle of a dream seemed indulgent and wasteful.
The pines grew and grew, until their trunks were over three feet or more in diameter and their tops were lost in a thick, rustling canopy above that shut out all but the palest glimmer of grey light. The spaces between the trees grew as well, open room-sized spaces carpeted with more of that pale, soft grass. Here in the twilight of the forest she lost her inner compass, and with no lake or sea to fix on, she wandered among the trees with no direction. She stroked their strong, rough trunks with curious fingertips, and stared up into the green-grey cover overhead, and waited for something to tell her which way to go. That there was a direction, and that she would be told, she never doubted.
Eventually there was a path, and the path widened into a way, and the way became a long hall under the pine branches that reminded Meg of the path to the clearing at the top of Charles Wallace's hill. It led down though, not up, and when it widened, it circled a small green pond, and stopped. Beyond the pond, the trees were fitted so closely together they formed a kind of wall. Around the pond, there was a tiny beach of fine, white-gold sand.
Meg looked back the way she had come. The forest behind her was dark and empty; desolate, she realized now. A desert of a forest, barren but for the monolithic trees. The pond, which was the first thing she had seen in days or weeks that was not forest, glittered in its sandy setting like a jewel. It suddenly seemed both dangerous and unbearably inviting, as if stepping in would be the most wonderful thing imaginable, and would utterly consume her. She was drawn forward until the water, crystal clear, lapped at the soles of her boots.
Meg sat down on the sand and pulled the boots off, and her socks as well. She rolled the sleeves of her shirt up to her elbows, and rolled up the cuffs of her jeans to just below her knees. A little wade won't hurt, she thought, I won't go all the way in,
and then the water slipped up over her ankles in a silken rush, and then over her calves, pulling at her, pulling her in deeper, drawing her inexorably toward the center of the pond and down, until it soaked her jeans, soaked her shirt up to the waist, curved under her breasts, pulled her down to circle around her throat, and then washed up into her mouth, her nose, her eyes, and closed over the top of her head in a rich, vibrant haze of understanding, and peace, and joy.
When the light faded, and sense returned, Meg found herself stretched out on the flat grassy top of a hillock rising out of an ocean of dark, leafy trees that stretched from one horizon to the other. Overhead the sky arced a brilliant, piercing blue and the sun shone down with clear, warm, yellow light. Beside her, Charles Wallace sat in faded blue jeans and the same hooded red sweatshirt as before. His arms were looped around his knees, his eyes closed, his face tilted up to the sun. His hair gleamed in the light. When he sensed her watching, his head tipped back down and his eyes opened.
"It's always forests with you," he said, smiling.
Meg blinked, and sat up. She was dry and comfortable, nicely warmed by the sun. Her white shirt had grass stains at the elbows where the cuffs had been; now they hung to her wrists again, unrolled and unbuttoned. Her jeans were unrolled, too.
Her boots and socks were gone.
"Where are we?" she said in a low, hushed voice. It didn't seem to be the kind of place where one could call or shout.
"Home, sleeping," Charles said. "But we're also Within."
"Kything?" Meg said wonderingly. She looked down at her hands -- her own squared-off fingertips, nails kept short (and sometimes bitten), still lightly colored with summer's last tan. "Who?"
"Me!" Meg said. She looked at Charles Wallace in surprised confusion. "But I'm just dreaming this! I was--" Her brow furrowed. "I was just dreaming," she said after a moment.
"Dreaming is not as different from waking as you might think," Charles said.
"I don't think I'm dreaming now, or awake. What is this place?"
"A lesson. I've been listening while you slept. Can you hear?"
Meg closed her eyes. She could hear something. It rose up all around her, an echo of notes, a rising melody. It came from the hillock and the trees, from the grass and the earth, from Charles Wallace and also from inside Meg herself. It was familiar, swift and warm. It was not always on key. Meg thought it was like a song a mother would sing a child to sleep with -- imperfect, loving, well-meant, and therefore, beautiful.
"I hear it."
"It's you, Meg. I've always heard it. I can hear all of you, but you and Mother more than the others. You most of all."
Meg shook her head. It was beautiful; far too beautiful to come from her. Meg thought her own music must be wilder than this, angrier. Discordant. This--
"You're being wrong again, the same way you've always been wrong. You've always been more than you let yourself believe, Meg. Why do you have to make it so difficult? Everything that sings is beautiful. The beauty only stops when the song falters."
"I feel like I must falter all the time," Meg said. "How can this be me when I get so angry, and -- and when I don't trust people, and I'm afraid, and when I hate everything, sometimes?"
"Because the song isn't in your successes or your failures. It's in your love, and it's love that makes you angry and afraid. Love of me, of the twins, Mother and Father, Calvin... love of Polly and Charles. Love of everything else that loves. That's your power, Meg, and it's always been strong. It's held me up, when I couldn't hold up on my own. That's your voice."
Meg lowered her head, humbled by the force of Charles Wallace's words. She knew she loved all those things, but it felt somehow wicked to think that made her special.
"You are special," Charles said. He was with her now -- and not just with, but Within. She supposed he had been from the start. "It's like the fall of the sparrow. Everything that sings is special, and important."
"Oh, Charles Wallace," Meg cried. She lowered her hands; tears ran from her eyes, down her cheeks and into her nose and mouth. "How can you stand it? Is it like this for you all the time?"
"It's here when I need it," Charles said. He wiped at her wet cheeks with the cuff of his sweatshirt, and tucked his hand into hers.
"The rest of it," she said. "The lake and the forest? The pond?"
"You made those." Charles smiled. "Actually, you're making this, too. This is the place in you that's always singing, and this is what it looks like when you're here."
"But what does it mean?"
"I think it means you're very fond of trees," Charles Wallace said gravely.
"I didn't know I was this fond of them," Meg said with a quick grin. "What else?"
Charles tilted his head. It looked almost as if he were listening for the answer. Maybe listening to Meg's music tell him -- or the other music. The rest of it. The part Meg could only almost hear. "I think... for most people, it's too much, and so there are things they put in their own way, so they don't have to come here and see, hear, what they truly are. You put things in your way, too, but you weren't afraid to push through them."
Meg nodded. "I knew I was dreaming," she said slowly. "But then it was more real somehow. It was like I had to dream to get to the pond. And I had to go into the pond to... to turn myself inside out. Wake myself up."
"And you had to do that to show me what my task is," Charles Wallace said. He smiled at her, so bright and full of love it almost broke her heart. "I should have known they wouldn't send you as just a witness. You'll stand by me, and we'll finish it together."
4. In the Lost Garden
This time when they traveled, Charles Wallace looked at her, and waited for her to nod. She clutched his arm close to her side, still half-anticipating a violent jolt, cold, and darkness. Instead, what she felt was more like a shift in the scenery. Meg and Charles stood still, while her forest and hill melted away beneath them.
The tree-world was replaced by greenery of a different kind. Vines twined up into a mist over their heads, thick as Meg's wrist, sprouting leaves big enough to perch on; she thought they might have held her up, too. Spears of green shot up from the ground, tapering to vanishing points above.
Charles looked up to his right, and pointed. Meg followed the angle and gasped; her perspective underwent a sudden change, so dizzying she sat down hard on the ground. The petals of a dandelion -- bright, buttery yellow and feathering out to six feet long and more -- hung its face down toward the earth. Cupped in one petal there was a droplet of dew the size of a bowling ball, gleaming like mercury in the hot summer sun. From the dandelion's back sprang a mottled green and brown tube that angled up toward a dripping break well over even Charles' head and then shot back down into the ground. It was large enough to be terrifying in its implications, but Meg thought it also looked rather forlorn.
The dandelion's scent was rich and deep, like good strong dirt; and when Meg noticed it, others came to her one after another in a heady flood. There was a dark green vine that reminded her of baking bread, and a strange, flat, triangular leaf with feathered edges that smelled like mint, but greener somehow. Behind them, a straight brown stalk drove into the sky and vanished in the mist, giving off an odd, meaty smell -- thick, and dismayingly complex. Underlying it all the stalks of grass released a scent that was light and airy, lifting everything else up. Every blade gave off the same smell with a slightly different flavor, like different notes all from the same scale.
The assault was overwhelming; she turned to Charles Wallace again, for focus more than comfort. "We're--"
"The size we need to be," Charles said. "Remember?"
"But this isn't a projection. This is kything. We're Within someone, or something."
"Same principle applies," Charles said. His attention was not with her; he was looking at the dandelion, the ... the stalks of grass, the flowers. There were others; Meg couldn't name most of them, and the ones she thought she could she'd probably get wrong. She stuck close to Charles Wallace and followed when he went to the dandelion stem to curl his hand around it. His palm was wide, his fingers long and sturdy, but he couldn't span it. She put her hand on the stem below his, and was surprised to feel movement. Sap, she thought, sap rising and roiling inside, like a heartbeat. Flowers have heartbeats?
Charles Wallace dropped his hand suddenly and said, "Listen."
Meg stilled, and tilted her head. She strained to hear whatever Charles Wallace might be listening to, even knowing he could hear more than she ever could. Then he held a finger to his lips, and she understood. The cacophony of smells had made the giant garden seem raucous, but it was the silence Charles was listening to. The utter, perfect silence all around them
Looking around, she could see it now: the signs of neglect and decay. The spears of grass had a yellowish tinge, and the leaves had gone brown at their edges. The lush smells, strong and seemingly without number, only barely covered an underlying sweetness Meg all at once recognized as rot. The alien garden had gone to seed; in the quiet and the stillness there was a sense that no one had been here for a very, very long time.
"Oh, Charles, who is it?" she cried softly. "Who are we Within? Why ... why isn't there any singing? Are we not in Deep enough?"
"We're Within," Charles said simply.
"What can we do? Are we here to fix it? Can we fix it?"
"We can't always fix things, but we can usually find a way to make things better."
Meg clung to that thought. The silence filled her with a sense of coldness and despair. This inner place, this singing place -- surely it had to be consecrated to life somehow. This garden had a strange beauty that frightened her, but to find it broken and dying seemed almost profane. Charles felt it, too -- reaching out to him, she could feel his worry like a soft, discordant hum beneath the surface of his grief. It compounded her own worry, both for Charles Wallace and for the person -- being -- whose inner home this was.
"We have to find her, I think," Charles said finally. "I think she's lost in her own woods, trying to find this place. Maybe I'm meant to bring her here, find a way to make her sing."
Meg held her tongue, and let Charles Wallace work it through. She wasn't sure about bringing and making, really, but the idea seemed true enough. This place needed to sing again; of that she had no doubt. And in this arena, Charles Wallace knew what was needed far better than she could. He'd gone away for two years to learn things like this, after all.
"All right," he said. "First we have to find her. We can figure out the rest when we've seen how she is."
"How do you know we're looking for a she?"
"I can feel her. That's why I think she's lost her way."
"Well," Meg said, "if you can feel her, you should be able to follow her."
Charles Wallace shook his head immediately. "I don't want to leave you here alone."
There were quite a few things Meg wanted to say to that, but none of them would have been constructive or helpful. What she settled for was, "I'm a big girl, Charles, and I know you'll be back for me. I'll be fine till then. There's nothing here, after all."
"It doesn't feel safe."
"I won't be safe, no matter where you leave me. It's not a safe world, little brother." She fixed her eyes on his. "Go do what you need to do, and then come back. I'll be here."
Charles heard it as she meant it, and shook his head in mute exasperation. "There's no arguing with you, is there."
"None whatsoever," she said, smiling a little. "Someone has to stand up to you, after all. You'd roll right over the rest of us, otherwise."
Charles went to her and put his arms around her shoulders; she hugged him back, and then -- for now -- let him go.
She couldn't kythe with him, not and keep her place here at the same time. The nature of kything was total immersion, and she sensed that trying to divide that experience would make her lose both Charles and the garden. Still, there had always been more communication between Meg and her youngest brother than words could account for, an effortless connection, and when she listened -- listened on the inside -- she thought that she could hear him.
Closing her eyes, she imagined him searching across a vast monochromatic plain of waving grasses. There was no light, no scent, no differentiation. Time and distance were meaningless. She didn't think he would lose his way, but someone had; this she could feel more strongly than ever. Someone had lost her path in this pathless darkness, and despaired of ever finding it again.
--You could find it if you'd sing again,-- Meg told the owner of that despair. --You could go home!-- But nothing heard her, nothing listened, and the plain stretched on and on.
She opened her eyes, unable to bear it. The loneliness of that other bit into her like ice. Meg felt like a coward for turning away, but the ache of it was too much like her own. And it wasn't her task to complete, was it? It was Charles Wallace's. He'd brought her along to witness, and to say goodbye.
She wished, with all her heart, that they were children again. When they were children, there were guides to help them, to orient them. Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, dear old Mrs. Whatsit. Blajeny and Progo, Gaudior -- Meg would have settled for even Louise the Larger, under present circumstances. She wanted someone in authority, someone Charles would listen to, to tell him how wrong he was. To tell him he had to stay.
But they wouldn't, would they? Even when they were children, there had been very little ordering or telling. Advising, yes. Warning, definitely. But it had always been their choice then, and it was Charles Wallace's choice now. She just prayed he'd make the right one.
Resolutely, she closed her eyes again. Immediately, the sense of desolation returned, and the plain stretched out in all directions. A bleak sense of loss poured into her through her connection to Charles and pulled a sob of grief from her chest, but she stayed with him.
In time -- how much time, she didn't know -- she felt his search begin to narrow. He was close, his triumph and fear a jangle of bright song behind her eyes. The grasses parted before him, and Charles was not alone, and neither was Meg, and neither was she--
Meg! Charles called, reaching back, reaching for her, Meg, I have her! Can you--
and Meg reached back, reached in, and with all the strength within her she took hold of Charles Wallace and pulled, and
light and sound flashed in the silent clearing, and Charles Wallace tumbled into sight, his face stark white and strained with effort. A second later she was there, and Meg felt the blood drain from her own face. For a moment she felt faint; her chest felt tight and her breath came shallow and quick. The hairs on the backs of her arms rose and she backed away a few steps instinctively before she could get hold of herself. Charles Wallace came to her and laid a hand on her shoulder, steadying her.
"It's all right," he said quietly. His voice was barely a whisper in her ear. "We're safe. She won't hurt us."
Meg believed him, but intended to keep a prudent distance, all the same. "She..."
"Yes. This is our lost lamb."
"This is who we're Within?"
Charles nodded. "Yes."
To Meg's eyes, her body was the size of a large dog. Four wings stretched up and over her back, clear as windows, bright as crystal. Thick short hair covered her body -- yellow, with bands of rich brown that began behind her wings and continued over the thick curve of her abdomen. Her six legs were dark and segmented, and gleamed like polished metal, and her eyes...
Her eyes were many. Two vast, black, liquid wells, multifaceted and perfectly reflective, curved over each side of her head; between them, three smaller eyes shimmered in the dilute light from the mist above. Far too many eyes, Meg thought, I wonder what they see? The mouth... her mouth was a thing of many parts. Meg couldn't look at it for long. Mandibles opened and closed lazily, almost as if they were being stirred by a gentle breeze.
The crystalline wings shivered and stilled, shivered and stilled, and Meg was suddenly sure she was being examined by a multitude of senses -- watched, scented, tasted, felt. Was she, Meg, as horrifying as she was horrified? Was her pale, soft skin as repellent as her chitinous armor?
These thoughts settled Meg somehow, as much as Charles Wallace's comforting presence beside her. She took a deep, steadying breath. "I'm sorry for staring," she said after a moment. She wasn't even sure she'd be understood. "It's rude of me. I was just startled."
What arre you?
The words came into Meg's mind as if she'd heard them spoken aloud, but she hadn't. They were accompanied by a low, lovely hum that shivered warmly along Meg's spine and eased some of the tension she was fighting.
"I'm Charles Wallace," Charles said aloud. "And this is Meg."
Thesse arre your Hivess?
"They're our names," Meg said, thinking of Progo again. "What's yours?"
Our Hive iss-- she said, and there was a sound, a tremble and a vibration, an image in Meg's mind's eye of a meadow, sweet grasses silver in starlight, sweet flowers with their petals furled as they waited for the sun, a sense of many and all and one that filled Meg with joy and want and love so strong her knees shook and almost gave way. It drove the breath out of her and left her gasping. Charles Wallace's hand tightened on her shoulder and pulled her closer to him. He was shaking, too.
After a moment, when they could breathe again, Charles said shakily, "I don't think I can pronounce that."
Meg laughed, tension draining out of her in a sudden wash of relief. "No, me either. Is there something -- some sound -- that we can call you?"
We arre many, she said. We arre nursess, we arre workers, we arre sscouts. We arre many.
Meg looked up at Charles; he nodded. "We'll call you Scout, then. Is that all right?"
We arre Sscout, she affirmed, and Meg smiled.
"Do you know where you are, Scout?" Charles squeezed Meg's shoulder, then folded his long legs to sit cross-legged on the ground. Meg sat carefully beside him, tucking her knees in close to her chest and wrapping her arms around them.
We are insside. Dreaming. Ssleeping.
Charles nodded. "Do you know where you are Outside?"
We arre, she said, we arre, we are apart, we are not with, we are farr--
"You're lost." Charles Wallace looked at Meg, and she nodded encouragingly. "Scout, I think we've been sent to help you."
Yes, Scout said, and Meg felt a tremble of eagerness in the gentle hum of the words in her mind. Yess, help find, help be with, help be near. Help.
"Can you tell us what happened to you?"
We sickened, Scout said. We losst the sun. Losst the flowers. Losst the trees grass rockss water earth sky. Losst.
Meg hurt for her; she was seized by a desire to reach out and stroke the soft yellow fur of Scout's thorax, but of course she didn't. She looked at Charles Wallace instead, silently pleading for him to talk faster, work faster, fix this.
"Is that why you stopped singing?"
Scout was silent, and Meg shook her head at Charles Wallace, frowning.
We ssing, Scout said uncertainly. Her wings stretched and shivered over her back; her antennae fluttered over her dark, alien eyes. We ssing, at-- The image of the meadow flashed in Meg's mind again, mercifully brief.
"Scout, do you see the flowers here? The grass?"
--No,-- Meg thought, willing Charles to hear her. --No, she's not ready for this part.--
"This is the place inside you that should sing, but it's dying, Scout. If you sing, you can bring it back."
We arre dying. Scout's wings fluttered again, agitated; the hum that came with the words was so low Meg almost couldn't hear it. We ssing with, and nearr. Now we arre losst. Flowers rocks trees sky water, losst. We arre dying.
"Not we, Scout. You, alone. If you sing again--"
We, Scout said. A tremor ran through her, visible even at a distance. We ssing. We. The hum of her voice shattered and dissipated in Meg's mind; Scout withdrew, shutting them both out.
"Charles," Meg said. "I don't think--"
"It's all right, Meg."
"It's not!" Meg leaned closer to whisper. "She's not ready to be apart. You'll make it worse, you could kill her--"
"She won't sing if she doesn't know. And if she doesn't sing, it doesn't matter if she lives or dies. Look around, Meg! This isn't life. If she doesn't sing, it gets worse, and she lives with this inside her until whatever is making her sick on the outside finally kills her. Her voice is lost forever."
"Maybe she's not lost because she's sick." Meg looked at Scout -- insectile, alien, still; dying. Beautiful in her own way, and so very alone. "Maybe she's sick because she's lost. If we find her Hive for her, she'll sing again, won't she? It doesn't have to be one or the other."
"She's dying. We can't stop death; it's not in our power, Meg, you know that. But if she sings, she dies part of the ancient harmonies, and she also goes on."
"She won't sing without her Hive," Meg said. "She won't. I know it."
"If we explain--"
"She's not you, Charles!" Meg's voice rose, and she pulled back from him, out of the quiet circle their whispers had made. Charles Wallace's face paled, and his mouth snapped shut, hurt and surprise showing clearly in his eyes and the strained set of his shoulders. Meg didn't stop. "She's not made to be alone. She doesn't want to be alone. She wants to be with, and near, that's what's making her sick, that's why she's dying. You said you can't always fix things, but maybe sometimes you can. Maybe you can this time." Meg's shoulders slumped; all the energy, all the fight, had run out of her. "You could at least try."
Charles Wallace stood up. He walked away, hands clasped together behind his neck, his head bowed. Meg watched him pace, never looking her way, never looking at Scout. She'd never felt the distance between them more -- the difference in their ages, and the difference in the directions their lives had taken. In her mind, they were a unit -- not just the family, but herself, Calvin, Charles. The things they'd seen and done had bound them together, she'd thought; she knew Calvin had thought so, too. But Charles had always been different; maybe too different to be bound like that. Maybe she would have to let him go.
When he stopped, he stood in front of her, looking down, his hair curling into his eyes and falling into his face. Meg looked up at him and waited without hoping; afraid to hope. She could already feel the loss of him, the emptiness he would leave in her when he was gone. It took her breath away.
He held his hand out to her; she took it, and he pulled her to her feet. His eyes were solemn and warm, bright with a shine of tears he wouldn't want her to see. His grip on her hand was almost tight enough to be painful; he let go after a moment, but only to pull her into a bone-cracking hug.
"I'm sorry." He cradled her head against his shoulder and kissed the top of her head. "I'm really, really sorry, Meg. I'm not leaving forever, I won't. I promise."
It was Meg who went to Scout and knelt before her. Charles stood at Meg's side, lending quiet support. She reached out, cautiously, so as not to startle, and gently stroked the butter-yellow fur behind Scout's head. It was rough against the palm of her hand, but also plush and thick.
"Scout, can you hear me?"
Beneath her hand, Scout trembled.
"We'll help you," Meg said. "We'll help you find...home." She wasn't sure the word would translate, but she put everything behind it: the attic bedroom, with its ancient brass bed and the warmest quilts in the world; the kitchen table, where everything important seemed to start; the star-watching rock, where they met dragons, and saved the world.
She put Mother and Father into it, and the twins, and Charles Wallace; Fortinbras and Ananda, and even the endless supply of barn kittens who claimed them all; everything.
Scout's head dropped, carefully. One of her antennae dipped down to touch Meg's forehead gently; it felt cool and smooth and dry against Meg's skin.
Your Hive, Scout said.
Meg and Charles Wallace nodded. "Yes."
We arre many, she said, and Charles nodded again.
"So are we."
They navigated by sound. Scout knew the hum and tremor of her hive, but had been gone too long and had lost too much to find it again. Charles Wallace knew how to hear the ancient harmonies, and could listen far. Meg stood between them and linked them, one hand stroking Scout's rough-soft fur and the other held tight by Charles Wallace. When they found the right chorus, the right buzz of low, concordant voices, Scout's trembling body jerked -- wavered -- and vanished. The light intensified, the ground shook beneath them, and a new green shoot broke through the earth and flared up and open, reaching for the sky above.
All around them, Scout resumed her song.
Meg turned to Charles, gladness filling her heart. "Do you think she'll be all right?"
Charles tilted his head, listening. "She's beautiful," he said after a moment. "And she's where she wants to be."
"You passed your test, then," Meg said. She was glad of that, too, now that it wouldn't take him away from her. She was proud of him: her misfit little brother, the odd one, the silent one, the one everyone had said was slow. He'd outshone them all.
"Oh, Meg." Charles smiled, and took her both of her hands in his. "Yes, I passed, thanks to you. But I was wrong about almost everything. Scout was never my test. You were. I'm afraid I'm not as bright as you always thought I was."
"You always did try to take on too much," she said.
"And you always showed me the error of my ways."
Meg nodded. "I always will," she said gravely. "That's what big sisters do."
Charles Wallace laughed. He let go of her hand, and for the first time since he'd come back, she didn't mind it. "You know the way home?"
Meg grinned, and dusted off the knees of her jeans. "I'll race you."