MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Dad tells me the wood is not a place to play. It is a place for business, and it is more powerful than I could ever imagine.
He tells me I cannot forget the rules of the wood. There are three.
Do not travel from the paths.
Do not linger after dark.
Do not ignore the calling.
These rules are easy to remember. He drills them into my head every day over cereal breakfasts and walks to the bus stop. He meets me after school and reminds me again, but when I ask if I can go into the wood, he says, “Not yet.”
I watch them from my bedroom window, the trees that spread out behind our house along the Olentangy River. To everyone else, they are half a mile wide and three miles deep. To us, they’re limitless.
I watch the seasons change from that window. Count the number of leaves that have turned orange and red, purple and gold. I watch them fall from their branches, covering the ground so that the paths are only distinguishable by the weathered logs that outline them.
When the snow comes, the logs are also covered, and I wonder if it makes the rules harder to follow. If it’s easier to wander off the paths when they can’t be seen. Easier to get trapped in the middle of a limitless space, unable to escape when night comes crawling in. If it’s easier to forget things such as duty and honor surrounded by all that white.
Dad tells me it’s in his blood. He would know the paths even if he were blind. He feels the night descending like others feel the warmth from a fire or smell rain on the horizon. He never neglects to heed the call.
Even when he wants to.
He tells me it’ll be the same for me, when I’m old enough. He tells me it’s in my blood, too.
And when he finally begins my lessons in the wood, I know he’s right. I feel it, like birdsong. A buzzing melody beneath my skin that keeps me on the paths, guiding me, never letting me go where I shouldn’t. I cannot travel from the paths—it is physically impossible. I cannot linger after dark—to do so would be suicide. I cannot ignore the calling—the one time Dad told me to try, the birdsong turned into hornets, boring into muscles and sinew, crippling me with pain and sickness.
It is because of these rules that I don’t immediately think anything’s wrong when I come down the stairs one morning and Dad’s not sitting at the kitchen table. Why I don’t understand when I see Mom sobbing into Uncle Joe’s shirt. Why a humming clogs my ears as Uncle Joe tells me Dad wandered off the paths. That he got swallowed up by the trees.
That he’s gone.
I tell Joe it can’t be true. Dad couldn’t have walked off the paths—it isn’t possible. Joe must have made a mistake. Dad just hasn’t come back from his morning patrol yet. That’s all.
But I’ve never seen Uncle Joe look so pale. He murmurs to himself, the same way he does when we play chess and he’s thinking of all the possible outcomes. I catch fragments like “must have tripped somehow” and “maybe a fight with a traveler?” and “need to inform the council.”
Mom is sitting at the table now, her arms crossing her head like a fort. I lean over her and lay my head on top of hers, even though I can’t understand why she’s crying. Dad’s still out on morning patrol.
He’s coming back.
* * *
In the weeks that follow, the council’s investigation concludes with no evidence of foul play. They determine he simply stumbled off a path. An accident. Nothing anyone could do.
But I know better.
Either he was forced off the path, or he found a way to walk off it voluntarily. If it’s the former, if a traveler somehow forced his feet from the path, there’s nothing I can do. So I tell myself it’s the latter, because if Dad walked off the path, he did so for a reason. If Dad walked off the path, then I should be able to do the same thing. But even as I stand in the wood, surrounded by ice-covered trees that glitter in the sunlight like crystals, throwing bands of rainbows onto the snow around my feet, I can’t follow him. My body won’t let me.
I ask Uncle Joe what this means.
He says it’s in my blood. I can never walk off the paths.
Copyright © 2017 by Chelsea Bobulski