The afternoon sun did soon break in, illuminating every gnarly stem of grass as if for the first time. Maddy forgot that she had not been feeling well just that morning as she wandered aimlessly through her little garden, pausing to delight in a perfect drop of rain about to fall from a leaf, or a little puddle that so clearly reflected the worn toe of her shoe.
When she neared the back of the little walled in backyard, Maddy noticed something out of place in the wildly overgrown hedge that divided her home from the next door neighbor’s. There was a folded scrap of paper tied with a piece of red yarn to a branch that stuck out particularly far, and was now weighed down by the weight of the soggy paper.
She carefully unfolded the note, doing her best to do so without tearing it, but only partly succeeding. Once it was open, she could still, just barely make out the heavily smudged blue ink, that, in a very familiar hand, spelled out these words:
Will you share with me your first kiss? Tonight, under The Whispering Tree.
* * * *
“Ta-tick” the old grandfather clock exerted itself enough to release another moment of time. And time obligingly moved another minute closer to when she would go down to “meet the sthociety”.
And what if one of them were particularly handsome? She’d never met a boy she thought was actually very attractive. “Face it,” she used to say to herself in her head, “all the boys you know either have heads full of useless Nintendo stats or empty from too many hockey pucks to the helmet. Besides, nobody looks anything but dumb in a t-shirt.” Oh, she had met some men she had found attractive, but they were the old, kind men. The type you wished were your age or your favorite uncle, but didn’t spend any heart pining for.
She paced at least fifteen times for every reluctant stroke of the old clock. At last it proclaimed the hour 3 o’clock, with a surprisingly youthful chiming, and Maddy slipped out into the hall. She put on her most lady-like pose and paraded down the long curving staircase to the main entrance way. But she did not find what she was expecting at the foot of the stairs.
Her aunt was there, dressed head to toe in black silks and lace. However, this was nothing new, as the queer woman had been fussing over her half an hour before. What was surprising was the lack of the promised “sthociety” both in appearance and sound. For Maddy was sure that she should have heard their voices in the elegant and overly large parlor down the hall.
“You look sthimply lovely, dear,” said Aunt Annabelle for the third time that evening.
“Thank you, Aunt Annabelle, but whe—”
“The, company, have arranged themselves in the basement, and are waiting for you.”
Maddy did not like the way her aunt paused slightly before saying the word ‘company’. There was something about it that made worry squirm its way into her spine like an itchy unwanted insect.
“Right this way, my dear.”
Maddy followed her aunt down another hallway to a large door that had been shut for the past two weeks that she had been here. It was now open, and a brightly lit staircase was visible, spiraling quickly down and out of sight. She stepped cautiously into the stone stairwell, her softly padded slippers making no sound on the massive slabs of marble.
As she followed her aunt down the surprisingly long staircase, the air became chilly, so that it teased about the locks by her neck and along her exposed flesh like a physical thing. Her aunt’s voice reverberated off the walls, and it too seemed strangely tangible, as if she could feel it, not just hear it.
“I should probably prepare you now, my darling,” she was saying. “because the society which I am about to introduce you too is far more grand and strange than you are expecting. You see, this house has been the home of many great families through the centuries, and there was a time when these families knew a very rare and wonderful form of magic.”
Even before Aunt Annabelle said the word ‘magic,’ Maddy knew that there was something terribly wrong. What had happened to her aunt’s lisp? It appeared to be very gone. Maddy wanted to stop walking, to turn around and go back up the stairs. But then, too, she desperately wanted to go on, fascination and curiosity drawing her like a thread follows a needle.
Eventually they reached the end of the stairs and Aunt Annabelle ushered Maddy into a massive underground hall, complete with shadowy tall ceilings, and circular marble pillars that splayed out into arches above like the roots of some strange up-side down trees.
When Maddy’s eyes settled back on the cold stone floor she spied a series of stone seats in the center of the hall, which faced each other in a line. As she drew nearer, shadowing Aunt Annabelle like a decorative purple purse, she saw that there were stone figures seated of six of the many chairs. Brown eyes bigger than usual, she walked between the row of sculptures, mystified by the sheer elegance and perfection with which the figures were rendered.
They were all young men, but one, which was a girl who looked about Maddy’s age and was wearing a gown very similar to the one Maddy had on. The girl had a very fierce look on her stone face, and her hands gripped the arms of the stone chair with taught energy.
Aunt Annabelle stood silently at the edge of the stone chairs, allowing Maddy to explore.
One of the young men looked more like an old boy, in that awkward stage between boyhood and manhood, he was poised in a cowering position, as if afraid of receiving a blow. The young man who sat in the chair opposite this boy could not have been more of a contrast. He sat with kingly confidence, his chin slightly upraised so that his eyes could peer down on her with a look of haughty arrogance. She didn’t think she would have liked to know that man.
Two chairs away sat another man, who had a similar facial structure to the haughty one. He too had a regal bear to his body, but he had very sad eyes, and while one hand rested on his lap, the other was held to his breast as if he hurt there. Maddy thought that the sculptor had done a masterful job capturing a young man with a broken heart.
The next young man had a very narrow face and pinched lips. His clothing was poufy all over, and downright awkward, Maddy thought.
The final young man was looking away as if he were listening to something. His hands were clenched tightly on his knees. He was wearing a simple robe outfit which contrasted to the other figures who all wore ornate stone clothing.
“Magic,” said Maddy, turning to her aunt after her long inspection of the six figures. “Magic sculpting powers. I know that some of the ancient sculptors achieve marvelously realistic figures, but this is astounding. And who are these people, and why were they chosen to have their statues made?”
“They are not sculptures.”
“What do you mean?” Maddy asked, trying to stop her mind from answering the question for her. When you’ve read as many books as Maddy has, you have to be careful not to let your imagination run away with you. However, this situation was just too book-like to resist.
“Their magic allowed them to freeze a person in stone forever.”
“So they killed them. That’s awful!”
“Forever, until they are woken. You see, these young men, and that girl, are youngest siblings for whom there was no suitable marriage partner. Rather than waste their good blood, they chose, or were chosen, to be turned into stone until someone should come along and wake them, with a kiss.”
“Yes, a kiss on the lips by one of the opposite sex will wake them from their stone sleep.”
“You want me to kiss…” Maddy was incredulous and found herself lacking in words to say.
“Part of the commitment is that you will love and marry them, once you have woken them.”
“Yes, of course. You see, they will only be woken by their true love’s kiss. You are well versed in fairy tales, you ought to realize this.”