She walked through an orchard, fallen apples red and cidery on the ground, crossed a stone wall, and wandered on into a small wood. The path was carpeted with leaves, red, orange, gold, giving off a rich, earthy smell. Polly scuffed along, pushing the toes of her running shoes through the lavish brightness. It was her first New England autumn and she was exhilarated by the colors drifting from the trees, dappling her hair with reflected amber and bronze. The sun shone with a golden haze through a muted blue sky. Leaves whispered to the ground. The air was crisp, but not cold. She hummed with contentment.
The trees were young, most no more than half a century old, with trunks still slender, completely unlike the great Spanish-moss-hung water and live oaks she had left less than a week before. Apples from a wild seedling had dropped onto the path. She picked one up, russet and a bit misshapen. But the fruit was crisp and juicy and she wandered on, eating, and spitting out the seeds.
Now the path led her toward a forest of much older trees, towering maples, spruce, and pine. Reaching above them all was an ancient oak, with large, serrated leaves of a deep bronze color, many still clinging tenaciously to the branches. It was very different from the Southern oaks she was used to, and she had not recognized it as one until she learned her mother and uncles had always called it the "Grandfather Oak."
"When we first moved here," her grandmother had explained, "most of the oaks were gone, killed by some disease. But this one survived, and now our land is full of young oaklings, all evidently disease-resistant, thanks to the Grandfather Oak."
Now she looked at the oak and was startled to see a young man standing in its shadows. He was looking at her with lucid blue eyes which seemed to hold the light of the day. He wore some kind of white garment, and one hand was on the head of a tan dog with large, pricked-up ears, outlined in black. The young man raised his hand in greeting, then turned and walked quickly into the forest. When she reached the great tree, he had disappeared from sight. She had thought he might speak to her, and she was curious.
The wind had risen and played through the pines, sounding almost like the rolling of the breakers on the beach at Benne Seed Island, off the coast of South Carolina, where her parents still were, and which she had left so short a time ago. She turned up the collar of the red anorak she had taken from the generous supply that hung on pegs outside her grandparents’ kitchen door. It was her favorite because it fitted her well and was warm and comfortable, and she liked it because the pockets were full of all kinds of things: a small but very bright flashlight; a pair of scissors; a notepad in a leather binder, with a purple felt pen; an assortment of paper clips, safety pins, rubber bands; a pair of dark glasses; a dog biscuit (for what dog?).
She sat on a great flat glacial rock, known as the star-watching rock, and looked up at white clouds scudding across the sky. She sat up straighter as she heard music, a high, rather shrill piping of a folk melody. What was it? Who was making music out here in the middle of nowhere? She got up and walked, following the sound, past the Grandfather Oak, in the same direction as the young man with the dog.
She went past the oak and there, sitting on a stone wall, was another young man, this one with lustrous black hair, and skin too white, playing a penny whistle.
"Zachary!" She was totally startled. "Zachary Gray! What are you doing here?"
He took the whistle from his mouth and shoved it into a pocket in his leather jacket. Rose from the wall and came toward her, arms outstretched. "Well met by sunlight, Miss Polly O’Keefe. Zachary Gray at your service."
She pulled away from his embrace. "But I thought you were at UCLA!"
"Hey." He put his arm around her waist and hugged her. "Aren’t you glad to see me?"
"Of course I’m glad to see you. But how did you get here? Not just New England, but here, at my grandparents’—"
He led her back to the wall. The stones still held warmth from the autumn sun. "I called your folks in South Carolina, and they informed me you were staying with your grandparents, so I drove over to say hello, and they—your grandparents—told me you’d gone for a walk, and if I came out here I’d probably find you." His voice was relaxed; he seemed perfectly at home.
"You drove here from UCLA?"
He laughed. "I’m taking an internship semester at a law firm in Hartford, specializing in insurance claims." His arm about her waist tightened. He bent toward her, touching his lips to hers.
She drew away. "Zach. No."
"I thought we were friends."
"We are. Friends."
"I thought you found me attractive."
"I do. But—not yet. Not now. You know that."
"Okay, Pol. But I can’t afford to wait too long." Suddenly his eyes looked bleak. His lips tightened. Then, deliberately, he gave her one of his most charming smiles. "At least you’re glad to see me."
"Very glad." Yes. Delighted, in fact, but totally surprised. She was flattered that he’d gone to the trouble to seek her out. She had met him in Athens the previous summer, where she had spent a few days before going to Cyprus to be a gofer at a conference on literature and literacy. It had been an incredibly rich experience, full of joy and pain, and in Athens Zachary had been charming to her, showing her a city he already knew well, and driving her around the surrounding countryside. But when he had said good-bye to her in the airport after the conference had ended, she had never expected to hear from him again.
"I can’t believe it!" She smiled at him.
"Can’t believe what, Red?"
"Don’t call me Red," she replied automatically. "That you’re here."
"Look at me. Touch me. It’s me, Zach. And what are you doing here?"
"Going for a walk."
"I mean, staying with your grandparents."
"I’m studying with them. For a few months, at any rate. They’re terrific."
"I gather they’re famous scientists or something."
"Well, Grand’s a Nobel Prize laureate. She’s into little things—sub-subatomic particles. And Granddad’s an astrophysicist and knows more about the space/time continuum than almost anybody except Einstein or Hawking."
"You always were a brain," he said. "You understand all that stuff?"
She laughed. "Only a very little." She was absurdly glad to see him. Her grandparents were, as she had said, terrific, but she hadn’t seen anyone her own age and hadn’t expected to.
"So why are you doing this instead of going to school at home?" he asked.
"I need lots more science than I could get at Cowper-town High, and getting to and from the mainland from Benne Seed was a real hassle."
"That’s not the only reason."
"Isn’t it enough?" It would have to be enough for Zachary, at least for now. She looked away from him, across the star-watching rock, to an autumn sky just turning toward dusk. The long rays of the sun touched the clouds with rose and gold, and the vivid colors of the leaves deepened. A dark shadow of purple moved across the low hills.
Zachary followed her gaze. "I love these mountains. So different from California mountains."
Polly nodded. "These are old mountains, ancient, worn down by rain and wind and time itself. Perspective-making."
"Do you need perspective?"
"Don’t we all?" A leaf drifted down and settled on Polly’s hair.
Zachary reached out long, pale fingers and took it off. "It’s the same color as your hair. Beautiful."
Polly sighed. "I’m just beginning to be reconciled to my hair. Given a choice, I wouldn’t have chosen orange."
"It’s not orange." Zachary let the leaf fall to the ground. "It’s the color of autumn."
—Nice, she thought.—How nice he can be. "This is the first time I’ve seen autumn foliage. I’ve always lived in warm climates. This is—I don’t have any words. I thought nothing could beat the ocean, and nothing does, but this—"
"It has its own glory," Zachary said. "Pop’s living in Sausalito now, and the view from his house can overwhelm, all that incredible expanse of Pacific. But this, as you say, gives perspective and peace.
"Your grandparents," he continued, "offered tea and cinnamon toast if I could find you and bring you back."
"Sure." She jumped down from the wall. As they passed the Grandfather Oak, she asked, "Hey, who was that blue-eyed guy I saw here a few minutes ago?"
He looked at her. "I thought he was someone who worked for your grandparents, a caretaker or gardener or something like that."
She shook her head.
"You mean they take care of this whole place themselves?"
"Yes. Well, a neighboring farmer hays the fields, but he’s older, and this man was young, and he didn’t look like a farmer to me."
Zachary laughed. "What do you think a farmer looks like? I grant you, this guy had a kind of nobility."
"Did you talk to him?"
"No, and that was, as I think about it, a little weird. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and I was going to say something, but he gave me this look, as though he was totally surprised to see me, I mean totally, and then he turned and walked into the woods. He had this big-eared dog with him, and they just took off. Not running. But when I looked, I didn’t see them." He shrugged. "As I said, I thought he must be a caretaker or whatever, and a lot of those types are sort of surly. Do you suppose he was a poacher? Do you have pheasants or quail?"
"Both. And our land is very visibly posted. It’s not big enough to be called a game preserve—most of the old farms around here were a hundred acres or less. But my grandparents like to keep it safe for the wildlife."
"Forget him," Zachary said. "I came out here looking for you and I’ve found you."
"I’m glad. Really glad." She smiled at him, her most brilliant smile. "Ready to go?"
"Sure. I think your grandparents are expecting us."
"Okay. We’ll just go back across the star-watching rock."
She stepped onto the large flat glacial rock. Patches of moss grew in the crevices. Mica sparkled in the long rays of the descending sun. "It’s always been called that. It’s a wonderful place to lie and watch the stars. It’s my mother’s favorite rock, from when she was a child."
They crossed the rock and walked along the path that led in the direction of the house. Zachary walked slowly, she noticed, breathing almost as though he had been running. She shortened her pace to match his. Under one of the wild apple trees scattered across the land the ground was slippery with wrinkled brown apples, and there was a pungent, cidery smell. Inadvertently she moved ahead of Zachary and came to a low stone wall that marked the boundary of the big field north of the house. On the wall a large black snake was curled in the last of the sunlight. "Hey!" Polly laughed in pleasure. "It’s Louise the Larger!"
Zachary stopped, frozen in his tracks. "What are you talking about? That’s a snake! Get away!"
"Oh, she won’t hurt us. It’s only Louise. She’s just a harmless black snake," Polly assured Zachary. "When my uncles, Sandy and Dennys, were kids—you met Sandy in Athens—"
"He didn’t approve of me." Zachary stepped back farther from the wall and the snake.
"It wasn’t you," Polly said. "It was your father’s conglomerates. Anyhow, there was a snake who lived in this wall, and my uncles called her Louise the Larger."
"I don’t know much about snakes." Zachary retreated yet another step. "They terrify me. But then isn’t this snake incredibly old?"
"Oh, she’s probably not the same one. Grand and I saw her sunning herself the other day, and she’s exactly like the old Louise the Larger, and Grand said there hasn’t been a black snake like Louise the Larger since my uncles left home."
"It’s a crazy name." Zachary still did not approach, but stayed leaning against a young oak by the side of the path, as though catching his breath.
—It’s a family joke, Polly thought. Zachary knew nothing about her family except that it was a large one, and she knew nothing about him except that his mother was dead and his father was rich beyond her comprehension. Louise later. "Ready?"
His voice was unsteady. "I’m not walking past that snake."
Excerpted from An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L'engle.
Copyright 1989 by Crosswicks.
Published in May 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.