Heddie Thompson knelt on her bed and pushed the window up. She propped it open with a piece of old broom handle that lay on the sill for just such a purpose, so the sash would not fall down behind her and seal her out of the house. She was not running away. She wanted back in, eventually.
The late August heat, oppressive in the little upstairs bedroom, was much more agreeable out in the open. Like moving through warm bath water, Heddie thought. She crept across the sloped roof over the kitchen, eased onto the flat-roofed garage, and stepped into the arms of the elm tree crowding the northwest corner. Her feet found a ladder of knobby old-man warts that stuck out from the trunk of the tree, and with a final stretch, her toes touched ground.
The gravel bruised her feet and Heddie realized she should have brought shoes, but it was too late to go back now. She looked up at the complacent house, defiant and unrepentant of her defiance. The lights were all out. Her mother had gone to bed early.
They were lucky to be here, she knew. Heddie had never met her mother’s Great Uncle Boyd, a life-long bachelor, who owned Harthorn and its surrounding fields thanks to a lucky streak at cards. Great Uncle Boyd was remarkably astute for a bachelor – though he had no desire to live out in the middle of nowhere himself, he understood that places such as Harthorn ought to be occupied. It was late summer now; Heddie and her mother and brother had arrived two days ago and Heddie’s mother had been cleaning ever since.
It was much darker out in the open than Heddie thought it would be – a different kind of dark than in the city, a thick kind of dark, though not unfriendly. It lay upon the lawn like a denim quilt, and turned the yellow pools of light into islands one could navigate between, unseen.
If someone had been around to ask why Heddie was sneaking out (and that ‘someone’ was not the kind of person to demand her immediate return to bed), Heddie would have said it was because the night air smelled so good. She wanted to swallow that smell, to have it run down her throat and bubble out of her mouth when she laughed. And if Heddie had thought further, if she were able to put it to words, she might have said that she wanted to navigate unseen for a while. That she wanted a little space that was unnamed, that prying eyes could not consider, regard, or pronounce upon.
She did not miss the place they’d left behind, although she’d cried in the back of the cab as it pulled away from her best friend waving at the edge of the curb. She’d left friends behind before but this time it hurt in a new place and she didn’t think she wanted to go there again.
Ahead, the old stone barn loomed like the Queen Mary, moored for the night, large and silent. One of the barn cats slipped around the corner and gave her a sideways glance. Heddie wondered if it was the same cat she’d rescued earlier that day. She had caught the boy from down the road throwing rocks at a grey tabby trapped in the barn loft and given him holy hell for it. The boy, Christopher, was playing with her brother Francis. He was older than Francis but younger than Heddie and he’d not taken it well but she was pretty sure he wouldn’t do it again – not while she was around, at any rate. She’d opened the loft door and expected the cat to bolt, but it had not. It stood its ground and stared at her with hazel yellow eyes.
“You owe me one,” she’d quipped to the cat. She expected no reply, and got none.
Francis wasn’t a bad kid, but he did tend to move with the crowd. That was probably why he made friends so easily, thought Heddie. Everyone loved Francis. Heddie’s mother had not felt it necessary to corner Francis in the hallway and ask him if he was going to make an effort to “fit in” when school started next week.
Heddie passed the barn and let herself into the back field, where she stood in the midst of an ocean of black, awed by the feeling of open space pressing about her, held together by darkness and tiny pricks of light. The distant yard lights of other farms, perhaps half a dozen, were far enough away that they might as well be stars.
Her feet found an old track that followed the curve of the pasture. It looked flat, but it wasn’t. The grass dipped and rippled and rolled; Heddie’s feet carried her away until the yard was mostly out of sight.
Something prickled in the dark.
She thought that she could see a faint glow out ahead. It was too faint to see if she looked at it directly, but she’d caught it out of the corner of her eye, she was sure of it. She stood still and held her breath.
She hadn’t been imagining things; the big old tree in the middle of the pasture was giving off a faint glow.
She swam towards it though the thick night air and stood beneath it, staring, mouth open, amazed. The gnarled old tree was carpeted with tiny white flowers turned toward the starlight. Petals drifted gently down, touching her upturned face and shoulders. This was the smell that had caught her at her window; this was what had pulled her out into the night.
A breeze touched the back of Heddie’s legs. It picked up the fallen petals, swirled them around, and lay them down along the old path. One by one the night sounds faded away until all that could be heard was the soft whisper of falling petals.
Heddie had explored the perimeter of the pasture earlier that day; there was a small hollow up ahead and it ended in a thick brush, bound by the pasture’s barbed-wire fence – at least, that’s what she thought should be there – but was that what was there now? She’d glimpsed something, almost –
A small dark thing bolted out of the hollow, barrelled down the path at full speed, scattering petals willy-nilly, and ran headlong into Heddie’s knees. She threw her hands out; all she could feel in the dark were claws and fur.
“Hey – what – ow!”
The thing bolted up her arms and onto her shoulders.
“Hide! In the bushes,” it hissed, clamping its paws around her head. “Be very quiet, and do it now.”
“But –,” Heddie started.
“Now!” The thing batted her head once for good measure.
Heddie, thoroughly confused, climbed to the edge of the bushes, knelt down, and backed into a small clear space near the ground.
“What’s going on?” she whispered.
“Farther, farther back,” it murmured in her ear. “Get down. And be very, very still.”
A cold mist curled low along the path, coming from the place Heddie thought she’d almost caught a glimpse of. White petals disappeared beneath it, plastered to the ground like wet chicken feathers. It was as though a veil had been drawn across the hollow.
Beyond the veil, something moved.
Goosebumps ran down Heddie’s arms. She wiggled back until her feet pressed up against a tree and she could go no further.
Tap, tap, tap, tap. She only saw bits and pieces of them at first. A tattered grey flutter of rags and sticks, like moths flying from branch to branch. Moths that swirled from shadow to shadow. Then a skeleton of a hand, with tatters of grey skin stretched across it. Then a long walking stick. Tap, tap, tap, tap. A bony rib cage – one, two, three – caked with grey ash, tattered cloaks about their shoulders. Their hoods were up, their faces hidden. They seemed to suck the darkness in about them.
Heddie tried to slow her breath but it was wanting desperately to come in great gasps. There was nothing between her and the ghostly creatures but a few leaves and some darkness. She pressed herself into the dirt, wishing the ground would open up and swallow her into a cocoon.
As the creatures passed by Heddie’s hiding place, they changed shape, taking on layers like the shell of a wasp’s nest. The stained and tattered capes turned into dusty traveler’s coats; in place of deep hoods they now wore broad-brimmed hats of grey felt that covered their faces in shadow. Old boots wrapped around the bony skeleton feet, and faces swam into view where Heddie was sure there had been none before.
The last of the three was the last to shift; as it passed, it seemed to turn its head and look directly at her. She saw, for a moment, under the broad-brimmed hat, two gaping black holes where there should have been eyes. She squeezed her eyes shut, praying that she hadn’t been seen. She was sure at any moment she’d feel bony fingers seize upon her shoulder.
When she opened her eyes, the grey men were gone. The hollow held its breath in silence, then a cricket chirruped experimentally. Others followed. Heddie let out the breath she’d been holding in a long, shaky exhale.
“Those things are between me and the house.” She slowly pulled out of her hiding spot, sat and wrapped her arms around herself. She was shivering. She could see her breath hanging in front of her; it was strangely chilly in their wake. “Where are they going? How am I supposed to get home?”
The cat – for that was the creature that had clamped itself onto her head – sat and wrapped its tail around its paws as it stared at her, unblinking.
Heddie stared back. “You did talk, didn’t you?” she said.
“It’s not strange that I can talk,” said the cat. “It’s strange that you can hear me.”
Heddie could just make out the cat’s hazel yellow eyes, floating mid-air like a Cheshire cat without a smile. Its smokey grey stripes blended seamlessly into the dark.
“The grey men will head towards the village; they always do.” The cat turned to stare after them. “They change bits of leaves and twigs into trinkets and potions and sell them to unwary folk.” The cat paused. It touched its nose with a round pink tongue. “And what are you doing out here, may I ask? Aren’t children supposed to be locked up at this time of night?”
“I snuck out,” said Heddie. “And I’m hardly ‘children’ anymore. Where does this go?” she asked, pointing at the path. “I thought I saw… it looked like it went… somewhere.” She trailed off.
“I can take you for a little visit, if you like,” said the cat. It stretched, slowly, arching its back and reaching forward with one paw, spreading its toes. “If you’re up for a little adventure, that is.” The very tip of its tail twitched.
“What about those… things?” Heddie glanced back at the farm. She could just make out the shadowy bulk of the house and the barn, and between them, one small yellow pool of yard light. It seemed very far away. She shivered.
“The grey men? I doubt we’ll see them again,” said the cat. “They won’t come back until sunrise, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t intend to stay any longer than midnight.”
The cat brushed past her ankles, and Heddie followed it into the hollow. Everything was an inky black – even the stars had disappeared. They walked in silence, until Heddie spoke.
“Is that why our house was empty?” said Heddie. “Because of the grey men? Do they scare people away?”
“Them? No! Not anyone who knows better. They only come through at this time of year, at the end of summer. Have been for as long as anyone can remember, and a good while longer than that, most likely.” The cat shrugged. “The house was empty because you needed a place to stay.”
“We didn’t need a place to stay,” said Heddie. “We had a place, in the city, but Great Uncle Boyd needed someone to look after the house.”
“Oh ho,” said the cat. “Is that what they told you?”
Heddie didn’t know what to say to that. She changed the subject.
“Do you have a name?” she said. “The girls down the lane said they called you Mrs. Bumpkin.”
The cat twitched one ear flat as though a bug had landed on it. “Do they now,” she said. “That’s truly awful. My name is Toad.”
Heddie giggled. “Well that doesn’t seem much better. How does a cat get to be called Toad?”
“I might tell you some day,” said the cat, pausing to stroke its whiskers with one paw as though twirling a moustache. “If you’re lucky.”
“That tree in the pasture,” said Heddie. “I was in it earlier today, I climbed right up into the branches. There weren’t any flowers on it. And then tonight, there was.”
“Of course,” said Toad. “It’s a harthorn tree.”
“A hawthorn tree?”
“No,” said Toad. “A harthorn tree.”
“Like the name of the farm? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Just because you’ve never heard of it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” said Toad tartly.
Heddie (wisely) bit back a retort.
“It only blooms when the path is open,” Toad added. “Or, conversely, the path is only open when the tree is blooming.”
The inky black dark was lifting into twilight blue and indigo shadows. Heddie could see the cat quite clearly now. She could see her surroundings as well – low, delicate underbrush and tall stately trees that went up and up and up. The kind of trees that didn’t exist on the prairies. She couldn’t see their canopies, they disappeared into the twilight above. On either side of the path, tiny five-petaled flowers gave off a starlight glow.
“Toad?” asked Heddie in a small voice. “Where are we?”
“You’ll see,” said Toad. “Very soon now. Mind the path. It’s contrary this far out.”
The path did seem to change its mind about where they were going once or twice, but Toad growled at it, and it sighed and shrugged and finally deposited them at the foot of a very steep hill which Toad began to climb, hopping lithely from rock to rock. Heddie followed, slowly, picking her way along.
She was out of breath and trying to hide it when she caught up with the cat. She would have gasped if she hadn’t already been winded from the climb. They were at the top of a cliff overlooking a wide valley. Everything was softly illuminated by a glow that came from everywhere and from nowhere, and though it was night, Heddie could see the valley clear as day – a broad meandering river, thick forest with patches of open meadow, mountains rimming the horizon, and on the other side of the valley, a steep pinnacle topped by a bright light, wreathed in clouds and lit by millions of tiny stars.
Heddie sat at the lip of the cliff and dangled her feet over the edge (something, she knew, which would horrify her mother). She was still catching her breath as Toad sat beside her, chest out, looking more than a little bit smug.
“Well?” said Toad. “What do you think? Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Hello, Toad,” said a voice from above. “Fancy meeting you here.”