The day that Ele was to leave the land of rope swings and tree forts, wilderness and farmland, was the day that her dear dog vanished. It was as if the dog knew that the family was moving away and so it did what Ele could only imagine doing—it vanished into the magical woods of Zoe Island.
Her mother was in a busy stress, her father sick in bed, and so it was up to Ele to embark on an urgent search party for her beloved companion before it was too late.
“Oh Pearl, where have you gone?” she called, running through the tall grasses by the fishpond.
It was very unlike her dog to stray too far from the farmhouse, and Ele knew she was afraid to go beyond the orchard for fear of the raccoons and foxes. And yet, a peculiar feeling drew Ele along the trail from the garden gate up the hill behind the greenhouse to the edge of the woods. She had walked, skipped, and ran this trail since she was a small child, but something about today made her nervous, as if she was venturing beyond some hidden boundary.
“Pearl?” she called softly. “You didn’t go into the woods did you?”
The saddening realization that this may be her last time walking this trail made the scene feel different, almost unfamiliar.
“Pearl, I don’t want to leave our home anymore than you do. But we can’t stay here.”
Lingering at the edge of the woods, she turned to gaze over her childhood home. The blue paint of the farmhouse was peeling in the summer sun, and the plants on the deck were overflowing with joy for life, their colors vibrant and expressive. The home as a whole seemed nestled in a little paradise of farmland, orchards, and gardens with the rich green of the forest surrounding it all in a comforting embrace.
Feeling the love for her home suddenly deepen and grasp at her heart, Ele let a sob break free. This is where she had grown up. This is where her imagination dwelled and played. This home protected her from the worries of the big world beyond Zoe Island. Yet somehow the worries had found her family even here in this oasis of childhood dreams and make-believe. Her father had fallen ill and the money was falling short. And then her mother, who had always felt isolated on such a small island, found a new job in the big city.
A sudden rumble brought Ele back into the urgency of the present, and her eyes flashed to the driveway where the big ugly moving truck sat puffing smoke and fidgeting impatiently. Time was running short! Turning her back on the scene, she took one solid look at the shadowy trail and began to run. A thrill welled up in her chest as she imagined running away from it all; maybe she could find Pearl and the two of them could hide out in the woods until her parents gave up and left. They could build a fort and live in the woods like elves, only sneaking back for food and supplies.
But Ele knew she was getting too old for such dreams and the city was going to swallow her up soon enough. But first she had to find Pearl!
Five steps past Trickle Creek, Ele stopped short as this familiar place felt different once again. Was it just the looming fact that she was leaving and not coming back? Or had something changed? She soon found herself gazing up a slight incline to the barbed wire fence that lined this side of the property. The fence held a grim reverence for Ele, instilled with the memory of those steely twines latching onto her, ripping her dress, pulling her hair, and not letting her go until she had carefully detached every individual twine while tears blurred her vision.
For some reason, even as she had grown into an agile young woman of a solid fifteen years, she still remained respectful of this fence and their previous encounter. Looking at it now, she knew that she could cross it without an issue, maybe even grab hold of a post and hop over it entirely. And yet, for some reason, the far side of this fence had never called to her. Until now.
Frowning, Ele walked cautiously up the slight incline, all too aware of the distant rumble of the moving truck. At the base of the fence, she could see where an animal had burrowed under the lowest strand of prickly metal, and the space where the dirt had been scratched away was just large enough for Pearl to fit through. Perhaps she had chased a rabbit under the fence and not known how to get back.
Climbing shakily over the barbed wire, Ele felt a strange thrill in her limbs. There was a distinct trail angling up the hill between the rocks and brush and Ele wondered again why she had never ventured over this fence before. The back of her parent’s property did not even have a fence, just a few pink ribbons hanging from the trees. And the fence that ran along the eastern side was made of wood and half rotten anyway.
Ele scrambled up the trail, careful not to get caught in the blackberry vines or brush the stinging nettles along the way. It wasn’t a very friendly trail, and the rocks kept slipping and scattering beneath her feet, but Ele soon reached the top where the trail continued through tall grass and below snags of prickly rosebuds.
Here, she found a series of old clay pots lining the trail and bursting with weeds and green yellow grass. But what startled her were the shadowed faces that peered out of each pot, carved in stone and each holding a unique expression. The first glared at Ele as if daring her to keep walking. The next face looked to be laughing at her, and not at all in a nice way. By the time she got to the third, Ele was unsure whether she ought to continue along the path. The third face was gravely serious, and its eyes bored into her, commanding her to stop. She felt an icy chill at the back of her neck and a little flickering flame in her stomach. But curiosity drew her onwards.
After several more faces, which equally questioned her with glares and scoffs and arrogant scorn, Ele stamped her foot and turned to the faces directly. “You are all the most ugly faces I have ever seen!” she said. “You think you own the world by scaring everyone else away, don’t you? Well,” she paused, “I think you’re hiding something.” And she continued to walk the trail with resumed confidence.
It wasn’t until she had rounded a bend between the thick undergrowth that her footsteps came to a stop. A series of paw prints followed the trail straight into a large yawning mouth in the hillside. The hole was blacker than a starless night and the entrance was lined with jagged rocks.
Ele’s eyes were wide and staring, but no light came to her from within the cave and nothing revealed itself. And yet the darkness was staring her down in a far stronger way than those faces had done. With thick, prickly bushes lining the pathway, there was nowhere to go but into the cave or back the way she had come. And with another ten steps of innocent forest before the cave, she couldn’t turn back so soon.
She took one step and felt a trill of fear. But she was able to calm herself down with a few words of reason. “This place is on my neighbor’s property. Old man Jenkins is a sweet old man. What’s to be afraid of?”
After another couple steps, she felt a sense of self-doubt. Again, a few careful words convinced her to carry onwards. “...Well, of course I don’t know what’s in the cave. And that is why I am just going to take a quick peek. No harm in that.”
Another few steps and Ele felt a new sensation. “Maybe I shouldn’t be here. What if someone catches me sneaking around...?”
But by this time, Ele was only a few steps away and she could see stone stairs descending into darkness. And then, her mind, which was still fumbling to keep the experience at bay by busying itself with words and explanations, was suddenly blown silent like a candle going out as her vision plummeted into darkness. Her mind reeled as the world seemed to burst open at the seams and a million eyes peered out of the dark unknown at her. She felt entirely exposed and vulnerable, as if she had crossed all the lines past all the warnings, climbed over every guard rail, unhooked from every safety rope, and was now standing on a tiny ledge thrust over an abyss. And it felt as if all the while her entire world had stood by and watched in dismay, and everyone was judging her and scolding her and yelling at her to come back.
Shaking, she took another step, but her body was tingling and the air felt alien and raw in her lungs. Her body buzzed with energy and her mind began to panic. She didn’t belong here. She wasn’t meant to go into the cave. She must get back to what was familiar.
Ele might have taken a few more steps. She might have descended into the ultimate unknown. She might have left behind everything she knew. But instead, a voice suddenly shattered her concentration and she felt her whole world pulling her back like a recoiling spring.
“Ele!” came the cry of her mother’s voice through the trees. “We’re going to miss the ferry!”
And as Ele fled the darkness back into the sunny forest, the unknown was replaced with a world so familiar that all of her fears were erased. It took less than thirty seconds to rush past the stone faces and to scramble down the hillside and over the fence. And in another minute, Ele was in the midst of her parents’ weariness and her mother was goading her into the truck, assuring her that Pearl would turn up and be transferred to the new home eventually. And as Ele worried about the fate of her dog while trying to not cry about leaving her childhood home, the experience of the dark cave began to seem like nothing more than a dream.