This is a story I don’t like to tell. Not for how it starts – the beginning is lovely, fun and magical. But for what happens next – for the grief, and the dying. For what I did and all it caused. But you’ve asked, and so I’ll tell you.
It began with the fireflies, as magic often does. I was out in the field behind my grandparents’ house with my little brother, Billy. We were chasing fireflies. Billy never catches them, he’s too jumpy, but I know the secret: Find a good one, and stick with it.
I had a good one. It was swollen from the hot day, flying low and lazy. I held tight to the blue jar my father gave me – one of the few things I brought with me from Chicago – and crept up to it. I reached for it, but it at the last second it darted right and past the shed. I pursed my lips and narrowed my eyes. You’re not getting away that easy, mister, I thought.
I followed the firefly into the woods. Little sticks and sharp pebbles replaced the soft July grass under my bare feet. I looked everywhere for that flashing yellow light.
“Jen-ny,” Billy called. I smiled, but left him behind. I left them all behind – my grumpy grandparents and their boring old house, my parents a million miles away. I only had eyes for that firefly.
It flashed just past a low bush. It was close, I could get it. I tiptoed toward it. It sparked and like that was a signal, I launched myself over the bush. I came down hard in a mess of leaves and legs and dirty red ponytail. The firefly looped off unharmed. I smirked at myself. Billy wasn’t the only jumpy one.
I got up and brushed myself off. That was when I noticed that I’d torn my skirt. Darn. It was my very favorite skirt, long and purple with silver threads running through it. I got when I was nine, two years earlier, and Mom kept wanting to throw it out, but I liked how soft it was. Well, maybe Gran could sew it up for me.
I tucked the jar into my pocket and looked around. I was farther into the woods than I’d thought. I had to get back. Gran told Billy and me the woods were off-limits when we arrived. Of course, everything interesting was off-limits here – the barn, the shed, the attic. Three weeks here in Maine and I hadn’t seen anything more exciting than The Price is Right.
The forest sure was pretty. The sun was going down and it made the green leaves look almost golden. They waved like butterflies as I walked. I inhaled the smell, like pine needles and honeysuckle, and tried to hold it inside. Maybe I could stay for a minute longer.
The woods here were different from the ones back home. They seemed older. The trees were knotted as Grandpa’s knuckles. It got a little darker as I got farther into the forest and the leaves got thicker overhead. There were some purple flowers snuggled in the roots of a tree that split in two and grew over itself like crossed fingers. They were so pretty, like little purple stars. I bent down to pick a few for my hair, but then I heard a noise in the bush to my right. I thought it might be a squirrel, or maybe a chipmunk. What I didn’t expect was a little person. Really little, like the size of a kindergartener, but her face wasn’t a kindergartener’s. It was like an old woman’s, with deep wrinkles. She had messy gray hair that fell thick past her shoulders and clothes that blended in with the bush around her.
It was such a shock I just stood there. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t know who on Earth she was or how she got there so fast. Then she spoke, in a voice was low and grumbly as a lawnmower. “Ah, ye came. Knew you would, knew you would. Best go now, can’t wait.”
I straightened up, so I was looking down on the little woman. I’m not tall – I was the second shortest in my sixth grade class, and only had Winnie by half an inch – but I tried to look as big as I could. I said in a strong, brave girl voice, “Who are you?”
“Name’s Magda,” she said. She was fussing with her hands and her dark eyes kept looking around us. “I’m a Keeper. Elf, you call it. Must come now, ‘e’s hurt.”
An elf? Well, she’s a silly little one. Was she trying to be funny? She was probably a dwarf. That’s what they were actually called, right? And she wanted me to come help someone? That was ridiculous. I wasn’t even supposed to be there. I should turn right around and go back to the house. I looked back at the house - the boring old house where nothing ever happened and no one did anything.
“He needs you, no time to wait,” the woman said, and she turned and walked away.
I stood there for a moment, playing with my horseshoe necklace. She was asking for my help. She didn’t seem dangerous. And this was certainly interesting. I’d been stuck in that house for so long with my annoying brother and barely a word from my parents. A little adventure wouldn’t be so awful, right?
I’d go. Just to see, just for a minute. I wouldn’t go far, and then I’d come right back. Billy wouldn’t even miss me. I gave my necklace a quick kiss for luck and ran after.
She was fast, this little one. She seemed to glide over fallen tree trunks and through bushes. I stumbled along, trying to keep up. A branch scraped my face and stung my cheek, but I kept going. Magda kept pestering me to go faster, to keep up with her. “Come, now! Almost there, almost there.”
“Where are we going?” I called out to her.
“Going to Kharoun,” she answered. “Old nag. Never stays where he’s supposed to. Got ‘imself caught.”
“Who?” Who were these people? Kharoun? Magda? Were they foreign? Where was she taking me?
“You’ll see, you’ll see. Move along. Got sap in your legs, eh?” She made a sound like a car engine backing up that I realized after a moment must be laughter.
It was getting dark. I slowed down. I was going too far, this was too much. Billy must have noticed I was gone by now, and maybe he’d even told Gran and Grandpa. I was going to be in such trouble. My stomach hurt at the thought of it. Gran and Grandpa were really strict. I got in trouble the second day just for grabbing some chips before dinner. I had to go back. This little woman and whatever help she needed – well, she’d have to figure it out on her own.
I turned around. I didn’t know where to go, though. We weren’t on a trail, and all I could see were trees and more trees. I didn’t even have a flashlight. What was I thinking following a stranger into the woods?
I turned back toward Magda. It took a second to find her slipping through a honeysuckle bush. Then I noticed a light shining beyond her. A clearing, maybe. The moon must be up. Was that it?