Danyela Doyle sat in the back seat of her dad’s thirteen year old car, staring at the rural scenery passing by at 65 miles per hour, twisting her black hair between two slender fingers. The Honda, one year younger than Danyela herself, was packed to the point of bursting, and the girl had very little room to move around. She had amused herself during the long drive by reading a book and counting the number of cows wandering around in the adjacent pastures. Reading made her a little carsick,and so far she was able to count only 57 cows. She probably would have been able to see more if she had not fallen asleep during the three hour car ride. There hadn’t been a pasture for miles, just acres of tobacco, corn, and cotton fields giving way to dense pine woods and old oaks draped with tendrils of Spanish moss, then endless marshes, no cattle to be seen. Her father promised that this would be an adventure, but this didn’t really look like the way to adventure. It just looked like any other road out in the middle of the sticks.
“Hey Dani!” Her father Desmonde called from the front seat. “In about thirty minutes we’ll be at the beach! Are you excited yet?”
“I guess. It sure takes a long time to get anywhere.”
Her mother was also sitting in the back seat, her feet on top of a styrofoam cooler packed with several days of groceries, her arms resting on the extra pillows she brought to help with Desmonde’s snoring. She reached over and patted Dani’s knee. “You’ve been really good this whole trip. When we get to the house, you can take Clementine for a nice long walk. She’ll need it after this car ride. Your father and I will take the stuff out of the car.”
Clementine, who was riding in the front passenger seat, thumped her tail when she heard her name. The dog She pointed her long snout to the back seat and panted heavily.
“PU! Mama, her breath really stinks!” Dani pinched her nose. “And she won’t walk far. She’s so lazy she’ll pee, poop, and then I’ll have to carry her back to the house because she won’t walk.”
“Well, someone has to do it. She’s gone pretty long without going o-u-t-s-i-d-e.”
Clementine recognized the word despite the spelling attempt and her tail thumped harder and faster. Dani did not particularly like the dog in the first place. The old dachshund was fat and inactive, not a real companion dog to a fourteen year old girl. She didn’t fetch. She would run away (if you could call her faster waddle running) if she wasn’t on a leash. And she farted, a lot.
“I don’t see why we can’t have a real dog instead of this fat slob. Something cute that I could carry in a cute bag.”
“Dani! Clementine is part of the family! She’s been ours since before you were born! Don’t call her names.” Her mother’s brow was cinched tightly together, making her look angry.
“Oh now Gayle, the dog doesn’t understand what she is saying. Dani wants something that will play with her and be ‘fashionable’ and trendy. And we both know that Clementine is more of a lawn ornament than a pet.”
“Well, we certainly aren’t getting another dog as long as she’s still around. She might not understand the words, but we do owe her some respect. She’s pretty old.”
“I’d respect her a lot more if she’d do something besides stink up the car, Mom.”
The Doyles drove on a few more miles down Highway 174. The oak tress now crowded close to the side of the road, and the drips of moss gave them an eerie and menacing look. Even though the day was bright and hot, the roadway was camouflaged by dapples of filtered sunlight, and the underbrush on the side seemed dark and deep. Occasionally there were clearings where Dani could see large expanses of salt marsh beyond the dark woods. There were sometimes lighter points at the edge of the trees on the opposite side of the marsh. The points looked to be small houses. She saw rickety-looking docks edging the water of the marsh with old row boats tied to them. Then the trees would close over the road again, giving the day an unreal cast, and blocking his view.
Desmonde spotted a small wooden sign that said “D’Esto” with a blue arrow that pointed down an unpaved road. He rented the house, sight unseen, from the sister of an old woman who lived down the street from them in Columbia. Ollie Mae D’Esto Washington was the oldest person he knew in the neighborhood. When he expressed his desire to take his family away for the summer and take time off from his teaching job to finish his novel, Ollie Mae’s sister, Nancy D’Esto, wrote offering room and board at her place near Edisto Island. Edisto was a barrier island near the southern tip of South Carolina.
The sign pointing the way was old and hard to see, planted back almost too far from the edge of the pavement of the highway, as if someone had put it there to keep it from being discovered. “Here’s the road! We’re almost there!” Desmonde spoke louder than normal so he could be heard over the road noise from the poorly maintained sandy surface.
The drive was longer than the family expected, and the roughness forced Desmonde to slow the Honda down to a crawl. There were dips and curves that went on for a couple of miles. The car kicked up a cloud of dust behind it, billowing up and coating the trees on the sides with a fin film of silt.
“Dad, are we ever gonna get there?” Dani whined. “I wanna see if there’s a dock like those places across the marsh. And maybe there’s a boat!”
“Ollie Mae told me once there was a dock and a boat when she grew up there as a child. It’s how they got around in those days. Nobody has been down here for fifteen years except her sister, so I don’t know how well it has been kept up. Her sister must be pretty old because Ollie Mae is seventy herself.”
“How does she stay this far away from people? I mean this place is spooky! I wouldn’t want to live here by myself.”
“Some people were raised this way, Dani. Ollie Mae lived down here at this very house when she was a girl. Her sister was very nice to let us come down here to stay for the summer while I finish my novel.”
“I still wish she lived in a beach house and not back in these woods, Desmonde. I think it would be a lot more fun for Dani.”
“There’s plenty for her to do back here, and the house is on the marsh. You saw those houses across the way when we crossed that causeway? That’s the kind of place Ollie Mae said it was, a little old house near a salt marsh and the woods.”
“Still, it’d be nice to be able to go to the beach instead of the edge of a tidal swamp. And I’ll bet there are mosquitos galore!”
“The sister said in the letter that we could ride our bikes or use the boat to get to the beach. And we brought enough mosquito repellent to kill just about anything.”
The driveway ended in a small cul-de-sac with barely enough room to turn the car around. The trees closed in on all sides in a dense jungle, and there wasn’t a house or even a path visible at first.
“Well, I wonder where it is.” Desmonde consulted the note that contained the directions Ollie Maw had given him before the trip. “I turned right at the sign and it should be right here at the end of this road, but I don’t see anything.”
“Maybe you missed another turnoff.” Gayle looked around the car. It was getting to be late afternoon and the shadows were growing longer and deeper. “I know it’s only a few hours before dark, but this place already looks like twilight.”
Outside the car, Dani saw a couple of Palmetto trees that looked like they formed an arbor. Nailed to each tree trunk, about three feet off of the ground were two blue glass reflectors. “Hey Dad! Look over there! Is that a path?”
“You know, I think it is. Let’s get out and see where if it goes to the house.”
“It had better lead to the house. I need to use the facilities.” Gayle opened her door and got out of the car, scraping her legs across the styrofoam cooler.
Dani broke from the car and raced over to the two trees. When she got closer she could see a small path winding its way back into the jungle. Further down she could see bright sky breaking through at the top of the trees where the water met the woods. “This way!” She called to her parents.
The path was dark and felt almost unused. Sharp-looking leaves stuck out from plants too close to its edge. Dani had to be careful, but the thorny ends scratched at her ankles anyway, and she wished she was wearing long pants instead of the cute shorts she chose that morning. There was a clearing about one hundred yards down from the two trees with the reflectors, a small white house in the middle of the glade. A few feet away from the house was a tree decorated with dozens of cobalt blue bottles of many shapes and sizes placed over the ends of its limbs. Some chickens pecked at the dirt around the tree, seemingly unconcerned with the visitors coming down the nearly overgrown trail. Over at the far edge of the yard was a set of rusty metal chairs that looked unused, a weathered telephone wire spool in the middle of them which served as a makeshift table, a lone Miller High Life beer bottle on it with marsh grass set into it as a centerpiece.
Dani’s father caught up to her and clasped her on the shoulder. “Well, this must be the place. Sure is a long hike from the road, huh baby?”
“This is ridiculous, Desmonde. We can’t even see the car from here.” Gayle appeared from the overgrown path dragging a reluctant Clementine on a nylon leash behind her. The old brown dog gagged and coughed as she pulled at the lead. “Does this place even have electricity?”
“Of course it does. Telephone too by the looks of those wires going to the house.” He pointed overhead at the utility lines that broke through the the trees and disappeared around the back of the tiny bungalow. “Let’s see if Miss D’Esto is home.”
“If she’s as old as Ollie Mae, she can’t be far.”
“I am right here.” A creaky sounding voice came from behind the family. They turned and there stood a little woman, less than five feet tall and the color of ebony wood. She was weathered and wrinkled like the siding on her house, and she wore giant gold hoop earrings and a brightly patterned but worn shift dress that went down almost to her ankles. Her hair was gray and pulled up carelessly on the top of her head in a tight, messy bun. Her irises were large, the color a milky teak brown and cobalt blue that almost mimicked the bottle tree in the yard.
“Hi! You must be Ollie Mae’s sister, Miss D’Esto! I’m Desmonde Doyle, and this is my wife Gayle and daughter Danyela. You can call her Dani.” Desmonde extended his hand towards the old woman.
“Now I done heard all about you folks! Ollie Mae and me, we talked just last month and she described you all to a tee. I been expecting you since this morning!” The old woman smiled showing a toothless mouth. She took Desmonde’s hand, gripping it firmly. She reached out to Gayle, then Dani, pausing to give the girl a long look. “You’s a bit older than I expected, child. You look like you can get into all sorts of things. You gonna be careful out here in the marshes, you hear me Dani?”
“Yes ma’am, Miss D’Esto. I’m always careful!”
“Oh I know young girls, and you ain’t going to be as careful as you say. And please, you can calls me Aunt Nancy. Everyone in these parts calls me Aunt Nancy and you should too.”
“Yes, Aunt Nancy.”
Desmonde walked around by the tree with the blue bottles. “This is certainly interesting. Nice yard art, Aunt Nancy.”
“Oh that ain’t just yard art, hun. It’s a spirit tree. It keep us safe, that tree does.”
“How does it do that?” Dani went over to the tree and touched some lower hanging bottles.
“I tell you later, when you all gets settled. You should go back to your car and gets the rest of your things. It’s gonna be darker back here soon.” Aunt Nancy turned to walk to the small cottage. “Now hurry! You don’t want to be coming down the path in the dark!”
“But Aunt Nancy, it’s only five in the afternoon. It won’t be dark for hours.” Gayle called after her.
“It gets darker earlier back here in the woods, hunnuh. That path got some stickers on its side, and it ain’t so easy to see them in the shadows. Now hurry up and you can help me get things ready for your supper. You can tie yo dog up right here. It can stay with Bull Frog there.” Aunt Nancy pointed to a small lean-to against the side of her house where an old black hound almost twice as fat as the Doyle’s dachshund was lying by a large empty tin pan and a chipped ceramic bowl filled with water. The dog was chained to the lean-to, but was so chubby didn’t look like it was apt to run away.
“Bull Frog. What a cute name! Is he friendly?” Gayle dragged Clementine over to the side of the porch.
“Oh he ain’t a he. He’s a she! And she’s as gentle as a kitten. She won’t bother no one, even another dog.” Aunt Nancy laughed.
“Why do you call her Bull Frog?” Gayle took the leash she was carrying and tied it to the same hook on the side of the house where the black dog was tethered.
“Oh she bark deep like an old bull frog down to the creek just on the other side of them trees there.” She pointed to a stand of droopy live oaks opposite of the house. “That creek is fresh water, not brackish like the marsh, and the frogs they likes it. You’ll hear them soon enough. Peepers, crickets, all them animals sings all night long.”
Gayle went inside with Aunt Nancy while Desmonde and Dani went back down the path to the car and carried the luggage, extra food, and supplies back to the house, leaving the boxes, cooler, and suitcases on the porch. It took them several trips to empty the Honda. Desmonde took the family’s three bicycles off of the roof and leaned them against one of the trees with the blue reflectors. When they got all the supplies to the house, Desmonde joined his wife inside. Dani went back by herself to where the car was parked and rode each bicycle back down the trail to the cottage. As the light got dim, she saw that the old woman was right, that the woods did get darker much sooner than the time would indicate. She rode her mother’s bicycle first, then her father’s. Finally she rode her own bike. Twigs and thorns pulled at her legs and the wheels of her bike as she wound along. It was almost like the plants were growing over the path as the woods quickly turned to twilight.