I walked the road by the tobacco fields nearly every day that summer. The trees which lined it were oak and something else I didn’t recognize. Both types had gnarly trunks and twisted boughs which hung over the road, making it dim in the best of light. The trees looked half-dead, and to my fanciful imagination, gateways to another world. I never knew how accurate that was until recently.
As autumn drew near, the old tobacco road took on a shadowy appearance, especially on the left-hand side, which bordered a dense wood. Although the trees along the road itself were misshapen and thick, those I could glimpse within the wood were thin and straight, but so close together that the wood was bathed in perpetual darkness.
The other side of the road bordered fields drenched in sunlight, and in some years sported billowy white tents for shade tobacco, although this past summer they grew another kind, broadleaf, without the tents, shorter but with that same distinctive smell. I wondered what the difference was. If it weren’t for the sunny tobacco fields on the right side, I may never have walked down that old tobacco road. It was quaint, full of history with big red barns in the open fields, but the road itself was not welcoming.
About halfway down the road, which was a dead-end with nothing but more woods and a river at the bottom of it, a driveway curved away into the dark wood. Younger, wide-spreading trees marked either side of the driveway, and flowering bushes were planted next to the trees in a precise pattern. The whole look was symmetrical and eerie, considering you couldn’t see more than a few yards down the driveway before it disappeared into the wood. And there was no sign—none—of a house. I looked.
But there was a house in that wood, invisible from the road, or maybe just invisible altogether, I don’t know. How I found out about it was purely an accident. Literally.
I was walking past the largest of the old gnarled oaks; this one had its wide trunk split vertically revealing a smooth wood interior which reminded me of a doorway, which in turn fired my imagination. I stopped and moved to the grass alongside the road to touch it, to see if it was as smooth as it looked. That’s what saved my life, I think.
With a horrendous crack, one of the twisted, deformed boughs came crashing down onto the road. A side branch caught me and knocked me to the ground, pinning me there. I must have been stunned, because that’s the last thing I remember for some time. When I awoke, it was twilight. A haze of lights steadied into a pale oval, a face, concerned, looking down at me.
“Are you all right?”
It was a boy, handsome certainly, with silver blonde hair and worried gray eyes, but no older than my youngest, if that. I sat up on my elbows. Around him I still glimpsed flickering lights, so maybe I wasn’t all right. “Where am I?” I asked instead. Last thing I remembered was the tree branch crashing down on me, but I didn’t see it now. I didn’t see much of anything beyond the pinpoints of light. Had I been unconscious for so long that night had fallen? “I need to get home,” I mumbled, struggling to sit all the way up.
Firm hands pushed me back. “Rest, first,” the young man said. “You’ve had a blow to the head. I’ll take you home when you feel better.”
“It wasn’t my fault!” A piercing voice, vaguely childlike, spoke defensively. One of the tiny lights flickered close to my head. I imagined I saw a face there, too, a tiny woman’s face, though of course that was not possible. “She touched my tree!” Or was it? I blinked rapidly.
“S’ae!” The young man admonished. “She didn’t know! She couldn’t see it! You didn’t have to make the branch come down!” Now the young man blinked, as if aware he’d said too much. He glanced at me through guilty eyes.
I peered through the gloom. “S’ae?” I asked softly, watching as the miniature light stilled under my regard. I had fantasized that the tree held a doorway into another world. I grasped my head as my imagination outpaced logic. What was I thinking? The whole situation was just so bizarre. Of course this wasn’t another world. The knock on my head was making me see things and hear things that my overactive imagination had called into existence. That was all it was.
I could see a little better, now. I lay on a couch of some sort, in a room gleaming with polished wood and jewel-like lamps which did little to cast light but gave the place a soft, homey glow. Much as I’d seen the boy’s face take shape in front of my straining eyes, now the girl, woman, S’ae became clear to me. She was no bigger than a child, but she was no wisp of light, either. Achingly beautiful, she gazed down on me with narrowed lavender eyes. The boy beside her was taller, like my youngest, almost grown but with the bloom of childhood barely off his features. “She sees you,” he told her unhappily. “She sees all of us now.”
I blinked again, and surrounding me was a roomful of children. No, not children. Their faces were exquisite, and, except for the handsome boy, they were no taller than children, but they were fully grown . . . creatures. The room brightened even more. High above I noticed latticed windows which reflected the jewel colors of the lamps and reminded me what time it must be. “I’ve got to go,” I repeated. This time the boy let me sit up.
He offered me a cup of water. As I sipped it slowly, I thought of all the old legends which said never to eat or drink when you were in . . . faerie . . . or you’d never be able to leave. “Where am I?” I asked as I handed him back the empty cup. It was too late now, anyway, since I’d already drunk the water. I suppressed a grin at my wild imagination.
“At my house,” the boy answered solemnly. “You fell at the edge of my driveway.”
My eyes widened. He lived down the mysterious driveway? I’d always wondered what that house looked like—you couldn’t see anything from the road. I figured it was probably a mansion compared to the other houses in the area, and how reclusive the owners seemed to be. I glanced around. The group of small people, with the exception of S’ae, had all gone away without my noticing. S’ae perched on the edge of my couch and watched me suspiciously. She wore a nightgown and her feet were bare. I squinted. Were they . . . ? I shook my head. Imagination, again.
“My family must be worried,” I said. It was just my husband and me. My youngest was away at school, and the older two were married and long out of the house. But I didn’t want to mention that to what were, virtually, strangers. I struggled to stand, which caused S’ae to jump off the couch and crouch, feral, on the floor, glaring at me. “Can I call them?”
The boy shrugged in apology. “Sorry, I don’t have a phone,” he said. “But if you’re sure you feel up to it, I’ll walk you back.”
No phone? That was unusual. My kids couldn’t function without one. I had one, though I seldom thought to bring it with me on my walks. I would from now on, I vowed. “That would be wonderful,” I told him sincerely. “Thanks for your hospitality. Thank your family for me, as well.”
The boy smiled. “They know,” he said simply. “Come on, I’ll show you the way out.”
S’ae humphed and took my vacated seat on the couch. I waved good-bye but she ignored me. “Do you have a name?” I asked him pointedly. He’d never said, and he should have.
He smiled and looked down. “Yes, I have a name,” he replied. “So do you.” He slanted a glance up at me, his grin turning crooked. On him it looked charming.
He had a point. Though I was the elder and he should have gone first, I gave him my name. “Marie, Marie Sellers.” I waited expectantly. As we conversed, he led me through his house to an ornate wood door, which he held open for me. I stepped outside to a dusky gloom, glad that it wasn’t quite as late as I’d originally thought. Behind me, the house towered at least two and a half stories, with dark brown shingles and green shutters. All the windows, and there were many, were latticed. Multi-colored light streamed gently outward, which may have accounted for the dusky sky. Beyond it the curving driveway stretched away into darkness.
“Marie Sellers, glad to meet you.” The boy held out his hand, which I formally shook. “You can call me Evan. Evan Silver,” he clarified, when I waited for the whole thing.
“And S’ae?” I asked, raise brows.
“S’ae Silver,” he answered. “A cousin.”
I nodded, and he took my elbow to guide me down the dark, dark driveway. It was longer than I expected before we came to the old tobacco road. As we approached the road, the glimpses of sky through the treetops became wider, and brighter, and by the time we got to the end of the driveway, the sun was shining. I stopped walking, and Evan tilted his head. “It—it was night,” I stuttered.
“It tends to get dark in our woods,” Evan replied, leading me past the tree which had started all this.
I gasped. There was no broken limb on the ground. I looked up, and there it was, right where it belonged, attached to its main trunk and looming over the road like it always did. Evan pulled me past it before I could reach out my hand again and touch the rolled-back seam which had looked so much like a doorway to me before. “Let’s get you home,” he murmured sensibly.
He walked me all the way back along the tobacco road to the main road, and beyond, to my street full of ordinary houses. My husband’s car was in the driveway, and I could see the television through our living room window. Just how much time had passed since I’d . . . fallen? I glanced at my guide, who looked down at me with a wry twist to his lips. “Home safe and sound,” he said.
“Thank you,” I replied. “Tell S’ae—“
He cut me off. “Best to forget about S’ae,” he advised. “Stay away from her tree, too. She’s a little sensitive about it.” He started to walk away.
“Wait!” I called. He turned around to look at me, and I suddenly found I had no idea what I wanted to say. I waved, and walked the last few steps to my house with a lump in my throat.
The clock in my kitchen showed that barely an hour had passed since I’d first started out on my walk. I went into the living room and turned down the television. “What day is it?” I asked.
“Saturday, why?” my husband asked.
“What’s the date?”
He looked at me like I was crazy. “The fourteenth,” he said.
Impossible. But then again, so much about that day was impossible. I never saw Evan Silver again, though I continue to walk the tobacco road when the weather permits. I watch S’ae’s tree, too, in case she’s ever watching me back, but I never see anything.
I did google that stretch of woods where the driveway curves away into darkness. There’s no house there. None.