The sign pointed left, "To San Francisco," and a smooth, paved road beckoned. To the right, a leaf-strewn track dwindled to darkness under the tall trees.
She pressed on the brakes and brought the car to a gentle stop. "Hey, kids," their mother said, as she turned away from the steering wheel to see their faces, "who's up for some adventure?"
Lit with the ferocious energy of a seven-year-old, Andy bounced up and down on the back seat. "Me! Me!"
But the loutish teenager in the passenger seat sat silent, scowling at his Game Boy, his fingers working the buttons as feverishly as his jaw chewed the gum in his mouth. His acne glistened.
With a roll of her inward eye, she forced a smile. "Come on, Jimmy, it'll be fun," she pleaded.
"Watch that tone, young man," she said, hoping it sounded stern. She got no reply. "Okay, you stay in the car. Andy and I will go for a short walk."She took his sullen silence for acquiescence.
Andy burst out of the car and skipped ahead. She followed him, admiring the huge redwoods towering over the green path. Ahead, golden light streamed into a break in the forest canopy. We'll head there and see what there is to see.
Ahead of them perched a little cabin made of weathered, grey logs. An old sign, the letters worn and faded, stood in front: "U.S. Forest Service." But for the neatly stacked pile of wood to the side, she would have taken it to be abandoned.
A Ranger station, I suppose, she thought, as she walked up to the door, which stood ajar. But instead of an information desk and a wall of souvenirs, she found a snug little room, looking like it could have been transported from a Hollywood set for a wilderness adventure movie. A table fashioned of slabs of wood roughly hewn stood against the far wall, a tidy basket of red apples in the exact center.
Not wanting to disturb anyone's privacy, she turned back--Andy, suddenly shy, followed close behind--and walked around to the back, in time to see a man in faded Ranger's garb stomping out of the trees into the clearing behind the house. A tall battered hat, crowned with a blue feather, perched atop a flourishing head of brown hair. His bushy brown beard flowed down his patched shirt; his feet bore huge, shiny yellow boots caked with mud. He sang in a lusty baritone a cheerful song of utter nonsense, as far as she could tell.
His bright blue eyes fastened on hers and he stopped suddenly. Taking off his tall hat, he bowed. "Welcome, lady."
"Why, hello," she said. "Are you the Ranger here?"
"Ah!" said the man. "Truth be told, they've forgotten about my post in Washington. But old Tom's still here, guarding the woods."
An eccentric, she decided, one of those nature fanatics. "It's lovely!" she said. "May I walk around? Are there trails?"
"Oh, indeed," he answered. "But you must take care which you choose. The closed trails here mean business," he said, his face suddenly serious. "Down in the gully the trees just don't like creatures on two feet."
A whimsical fellow to be sure, she thought, and smiled. "Are there mountain lions?"
"Oh, no," Tom said. "The trees don't like them much either, and they know it. But you'll be fine if you just stay away from the stream. The trail along the top is lovely." He pointed to a green path disappearing under a stand of birches.
"Thanks," she said. "Come on, Andy."
"But mind," said Tom, wagging a broad finger, "don't follow any paths going down the slope. Those trees have black hearts."
"Oh, I'll take care," she said, laughing, and taking Andy's hand, she set off.
She breathed deeply, enjoying the clean, fresh scent of the air, laden with the aroma of tree and leaf. So peaceful, especially with Jimmy in the car, she thought ruefully. I ought to have left him at Alcatraz.
"Mom," said Andy, "how can a tree have a black heart?"
"The man is teasing us, don't you think? We can have a real adventure, what do you say? Let's pretend some of the trees are watching us."
"Oh, goody!" he cried. Breaking his hold on her hand, he ran ahead. Suddenly, his red coat disappeared, as if swallowed by the trees.
"Andy," she called, a surprising alarm seizing her. "Don't wander off." She picked up her pace, calling again, "Andy!"
"I'm here, Mom! Come look!"
She turned a sudden bend in the path to see him a few feet down a steep trail that led off to the right. "No, sweetie, the Ranger said not to go off the main path."
Even before she finished speaking, he scrambled down a mossy rock.
"Andy!" There was no answer. Dammit, she thought. But there was no help for it, she had to follow. Past the rock, the trail plunged swiftly down, veering left. The tall, slim birches gave way to old gnarled oak; labyrinthine branches crept toward the sky, laden with deep green leaves. The fresh breeze died away, and the forest grew suddenly quiet. Looking up, she saw through the leaves a knotted old trunk with a great warty nose and two deep holes where the eyes should be.
"Andy!" she called again.
"Here, Mom!" And sure enough, there he was, as if the trees had pitched him out from their hoary branches.
"Come here at once," she ordered. Relieved anxiety flooded her.
"What's the matter?" Andy giggled. "The trees scare you?"
"Of course not," she lied, "but we aren't supposed to be down here. Let's go back." She took Andy's hand and they turned around, but they had not gone far before she stopped. "This is odd. The path is going down and to the left again." She gazed right and up, but a thick army of trunks was all she saw. I must be dreaming, she thought, a strange calmness swathing her like a cloak. It's so silent, like a church. I almost want to nap on a heap of leaves.
The path was rough, rocky, lined with huge ferns that smelled of her grandmother's herb garden. Keeping a tight hold on her son's small hand, she had no choice but to continue down, slowly, for the path was laden with branches, bits of slippery moss, and wet leaves. Once, when she placed her foot carefully over a twisty root, it almost seemed as if the root grabbed her ankle. I must need Prozac, she thought, dreamily. Trees that move.
The heavy air whispered of sleep, interrupted only by the sound of trickling water. They came suddenly upon a deep chasm with rich green-brown water dancing across rocks and fallen logs.
"Oh, dear," she said. "Let's stop a minute, sweetie."
Lay down your head, my daughter, be at peace.
She found a log lying close to a huge, twisted old trunk where they could sit and rest their backs.
Andy rubbed his eyes. "Mom?"
"Put your head in my lap. We'll just sit for a bit."
She closed her eyes, stroking her son's soft hair.
Sleep, lay down your troubles. Give up your cares to the Old Mother. Sleep, my daughter, my son, sleep. Lie still, now, my leaves will cover you. No cold, no snow, no wet will find you. My branches will shelter you, the earth will welcome you.
A vigorous yell woke her, and a pair of bright blue eyes shattered the green magic.
"Go back to bed, Old Mother!" shouted Tom the Ranger. "Leave these people be! They are not your kind, not for you to lull with your tree song!"
A sudden crack, and she felt as if she had popped out of an oaky coffin. Andy yawned beside her. "What? What happened?" she said, baffled with sleep. She could have sworn that Tom was singing into a crack in the hoary bark. A tremor shook the tree, and a deep sigh rose from the earth.
"Come now," said Tom. "Tom will show you the way."
They followed him in wonder up the path, which now, unaccountably, ran straight and firm, seemingly well-traveled. He sang as he stomped up the slope, his voice echoing through the valley.
They said goodbye at the Ranger station.
"You see now," said Tom, winking. "The old Forest Service does know a thing or two about trees. Mind where you step, now! Follow the marked trails!"
Relieved, and suddenly happy, she took Andy's hand and they set off for the car.
"Just wait till we tell Jimmy about our great adventure," she said.
"He won't care," Andy said. "He'd rather play Demons and Devils."
She sighed. Well, he's my son all the same.
But the car, when they got there, was empty. A leaf-strewn jacket trailed out of the open door. Resting on its muddy sleeve, the Game Boy flashed a message: "Game Over."