An unfinished version of this story was posted a few days ago. I've taken that post down. Here in its place is the current draft. It's been revised, and hopefully improved.
Behind our house, a group of trees stood together in a wood. It was a magical place of oak and chestnut, pine and elm. It had a high, arched roof where the branches meet and linger overhead, while moss and grass softened the floor below. My brother and I spent most of our time there, when we were not being good students at school. There were trails and paths that wandered through every corner of our forest; we knew them all so well we could walk through blindfolded with our hands tied behind our back, always knowing exactly where we were.
We didn’t get along all that well, Robin and I, until I was six years old. That’s when Donny Edmonds and Rebecca Tucci tried to bully my lunch money out of me for a week straight. Robin found me in the pantry after school one day, inhaling a second sleeve of soda crackers – evidence of the first scattered on the counter and down the front of my sweater. When I told him about Donny and Becky, he got really quiet and still, which told me he was seriously angry. He’s pretty territorial, you see and while at the time he didn’t harbour great personal fondness for me, it was not ok with him that someone else treated me badly. Even at the age of eight, Robin was a force to be reckoned with; to this day I’m not sure just what he did to the gruesome twosome, but they sure never bothered anyone else for their lunch money.
Two years after the lunch money episode, we moved from town to the country house because Mother believed it was better for us kids to grow up where we could smell cows in the field, not garbage rotting on street corners. At first it was hard to leave our friends behind, not to mention cable tv, and convenience stores well-stocked with candy; but being so far away from everything and everyone meant Robin and I had to depend on each other for company, and we discovered we really did like each other.
There is nothing more wonderful to a child than the chance to explore and discover. Our new house had cupboards, pantries, hallways and stairs enough to provide us with endless afternoons of hide-and-seek and treasure hunts. We quickly learned which doors would creak when we tried to sneak outside instead of do our homework, and that if we were really quiet in the attic trunk room, Mom would forget to call us to help her weed the garden.
It was in that attic room we set up our clubhouse. Over time we brought in pillows and blankets, a reading lamp with a supply of books, and a tin of cookies – as well as a few apples to keep us healthy. We plotted our grand adventures there, recording them afterward in our log book, which was kept carefully hidden in the back of a secret drawer of an old dresser. Well, we called it a secret drawer, but it was really just a drawer with the handle broken off, so we used a knitting needle to open it. Robin found a wobbly old globe of the world which he added to his collection of treasures. He loved to spin it, randomly land his finger on a country, then read about it in the one volume encyclopaedia we took from Dad’s study. He would make up stories for me about each new place, involving secret agents, deep sea divers, chocolate merchants, or orphaned princesses. It was an excellent way to learn geography.
When the weather allowed, we spent all of our time outside, under the trees of our wood. We discovered a little stream that cut through the middle of it, which was always a good place to find frogs and tadpoles. We found the place where a family of rabbits had their warren-home, and we learned that in early spring, deer were less timid and would come quite close to us, if we were very quiet. Red squirrels and chipmunks were always chasing each other up and down the tree trunks, fighting over nuts and bulbs as if there wouldn’t be plenty to go around. Robin thought it was a matter of team pride: Chipmunks Versus Squirrels in nature’s contest to gather the biggest harvest.
My brother and I usually did everything together because an adventure, no matter how exciting was never as much fun when experienced alone. He had the wonderful ability for turning hunting for frogs into an African big game safari, and going for a hike into a polar expedition. Our clubhouse walls were decorated with pictures of lions we had captured, and rich pirate ships we had plundered. He could turn even boring chores like washing dishes into a mission – should we choose to accept it – to save the world in 15 minutes or less.
One autumn, a few years after moving to our country house I came down with a double dose of the mumps and was kept home from school. Robin faithfully brought my homework each evening, and told me stories of what had happened on the yard at recess time. But after completing the four times tables and then reading Super Fudge for the third time, I started to think I was the unluckiest girl in the world for having to stay home. Eventually, after I had complained once too often that I was bored, Mother decided it would do me good to get some fresh air and use up excess energy; and so for the first time, I went into the woods without him. Wouldn’t you know it? That’s when the for-real adventure happened.
It was a day like any other, unless you knew what to look for: the sun shone especially bright, even though summer was well behind us; I saw a crow and a frog sitting on our swinging tire; and Mother let me have two peanut butter cookies before I ate my lunch. I should have realized that something special was going to happen, but you never really do, at the time.
There was a tree I was particularly fond of, because the earth formed a soft bowl at the feet of it, cushioned with soft moss. This little spot was exactly the right size and shape for me to curl up with a good book in the afternoon, when the sun shone over my shoulder perfectly so I could read, without having to squinch up my eyes. I could spend hours there, when I got lost in a story, looking up occasionally when I heard scurrying in the grass beside me, or the wind was being especially bossy in the leaves. It wasn’t far from the stream, so on the hottest days, we’d keep our drinks chilling in the water. Cool orange fizzy pop on a hot afternoon was as good as the ice cream cones we used to get from the bicycle carts in the city.
That particular day, I’d settled in with my soft-at-the-corners copy of Ballet Shoes, imagining myself as Posy, arriving at my adopted home in a basket of ballerina’s slippers. Gradually, the corners of my mind became aware of a soft scratching sound that repeated itself over and over again. Looking up from my book, though I was still vaguely in England 70 years ago, I somehow wasn’t surprised to find a very short but very stout little man standing beside me. He was only so tall that the leaves on the ground came all the way to his knees, and while I was sitting, the very tip of his hat didn’t even reach my shoulder.
I should have been startled, or afraid, or at least confused, shouldn’t I? But my brother had such a way of making the most remarkable stories seem real, that in my imagination we had already encountered and become friends with many strange creatures. This little man was just one more, along with the fauns and unicorns, white bears and flightless birds Robin told me about.
To look at, he was very like any man you might see buying tobacco for his pipe: he was round through the middle, with plump little red cheeks beside his smiling mouth. He was dressed in what I was sure must be tweed, with sturdy little brown leather shoes on his feet, glistening with a gold buckle on each one. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back, and he rocked back and forth from heel to toe, looking up at me with his head tilted so far back, I thought his hat would fall off with the next rock.
He kept smiling at me, so I knew he meant to be friends. Then I realized he was talking to me as well, though it sounded like he was chirping in Gerbil-talk, at first. I shook my head at him, lifting my shoulders in a shrug to let him know I didn’t understand him.
“I’m sorry,” I said, slowly and very clearly in a way that would have made Mrs. Evans, my English teacher very proud, “but I only speak English. Ing-gul-ish.” I frowned a little, to let him know I too, was friendly, and that I was trying to comprehend. As I listened very hard to the sounds he was making, they gradually became words I recognized -- chatter about spectacles and butter, which didn’t make a great deal of sense at first, but gradually it became clear he was talking about having lost his eye glasses somewhere in the grass and leaves; had I seen them? And that he wanted to invite me in for tea with bread and butter, only he was fresh out of butter that morning.
Looking for wee little glasses when the ground is covered with fallen leaves is quite a challenge; but, fortunately, even wee little glasses sparkle in the sun, and eventually we found them tucked under a mushroom cap. With his glasses safe once more, my new friend settled in for a good chat. I sat with my back propped against the reading tree, and took great delight in just looking at him. As a girl used to her brother’s wild stories about dragons, magic fountain pens and a secret world behind the bedroom mirror, it seemed perfectly natural to be deep in the woods talking to a...dwarf? And yet, how exciting to discover that sometimes imagination had its root in truth, and it was sitting across from me, with its legs crossed, swinging its foot back and forth as it talked to me.
This imaginary truth introduced himself as Gamel. He told me that he lived next door to the reading tree, and that he had often seen Robin and I, as we explored or whiled away the hours with a book or sketchpad. He told me that there were others like him living in various trees throughout the woods, and that he would introduce us in due time but not yet, as they were rather shy of big people. Gamel explained that he had lived in our forest for a very long time, and had known other boys and girls before we moved here. Not all boys and girls were capable of seeing the little people, because, as he said, they had ‘old souls’. Likewise, some grownups were remarkably young at heart, and could see Gamel and his friends their whole life long.
He invited me into his home to have some tea, but the doorway was too small for me to wiggle through, so I just peered in through the opening to see that he had a simple wooden table with two chairs in front of a little stove. Two shelves hanging on the wall held his collection of cups and plates and tins and things, and I saw a few pictures hanging up as well, though they were too small for me to see what they were pictures of. I noticed a lantern on the table, and imagined how cosy the room would be when the world was dark after the sun went down. There was a doorway that led into another room, and perhaps even more beyond that. How I wished I could sit at the table with Gamel, and even more I wished that Robin was with me to see it all for himself!
Gamel brought out two mugs, with curling wisps of steam drifting away in the slight breeze of the afternoon. We sat down again, not saying very much, merely enjoying each other’s company as we sipped the warm tea. It only took a few sips before my mug was empty, but I didn’t want to leave him yet, so I sat quietly until he was also done. Then he set down his mug with a satisfied swipe of the back of his hand across his mouth, and took up talking again – this time about his friends. Oh! The stories he had! There was his best friend and closest neighbour Dagen, who in their younger years, had set off with Gamel from their home forest, to discover the world before they settled in our backyard. Dagen was a daring sort, often getting the two friends into scrapes and near-disasters, relying on Gamel’s ingenuity to rescue them. Hedwig was a motherly sort who had taken on the job of making sure everyone in her neighbourhood was fed and warm, and cared for. Cullen and Ailith were a brother and sister who had never been anywhere but our Homewood, and were looked upon as clan elders. Cullen was sought out whenever there was conflict in the community, and Ailith was known for being able to fix absolutely anything. Needless to say, their home was constantly full of visitors. Gamel himself was known for being a fine artist with the sewing needle, and when he proudly showed me the waistcoat he had on that day, I had to assure him it looked very professional to me.
Though I was reluctant to return home, the afternoon couldn’t last forever. I knew Mother would be watching for me; probably beginning to fret a little about me being gone for so long while still mumpish. So I had to say goodbye to Gamel, promising him that I would return again as soon as I could, and that I would bring Robin with me. I looked back at the last possible moment – I think I wanted to prove to myself that it had really happened -- the little man was blowing smoke rings from his pipe, rocking back and forth on his feet like the first time I’d seen him.