The Uncle and the Boathouse
The ride back to the boathouse seemed quicker than when they had first rowed out here. Whilo did not pay as much attention to his surroundings being enamored with thoughts on the events of the past two days. Meeting Alder, seeing the wilderbeasts, having Lilly save his life twice. He did not know what he was going to do with all of this now that he was going home. Tell his neighbors about this? They probably would not believe most of it. Not to mention, they would not look at him the same way after knowing he had gone down the road that went right. They would be wary of him, the way they had been with Old Brom. But at this point, did their opinion matter to him? He was not sure. Such a change had come over him since coming out here yesterday, that he was not sure who he was to Shane anymore. What would he even be when he came back? Would everything go back to normal?
His attention was brought back to the present moment when Alder drew back up to the deck and began retying his boat. “Well, I know we ran into some trouble there at the end, Whilo, but I’m honestly glad we did this. It was just the distraction I needed.” He helped Whilo out of the boat, and having unlocked the door, invited him inside.
They stepped in through a narrow walkway on either side of which hung assorted gear and camping equipment. It was lighted by two small windows, one on each wall that let in the sun. Shoes were also piled on the floor and coats were draped over little pegs sticking out from the door that led further within. Whilo had volunteered to help Alder prepare dinner which they now had boiling in the cauldron over the fire in the living room. They both sat in cushioned chairs facing the fireplace, as it crackled with warm colored embers and the seasoned smell of stew filled the den.
“You never mentioned the fact that you were getting married.” Whilo began. “That’s incredible news. I for one am glad for you.” Alder nodded. “I’m very happy.” However a look of sadness appeared on his face that seemed to the contrary. “From what I gathered from your conversation with Lilly, you don’t have the same kind of troubles in Shane that we do. I hope I’m not presuming.”
“No, you heard us right.” “Raising a family in our village is difficult, to say the least. As Lilly told you earlier, hunting is rarely successful, and recently, the Goblin King has put a curse on our crops, so in turn we’ve resorted to scavenging for nuts and berries in the wilderness. That can be a problem if one is not as knowledgeable of the forest as Lilly and I are. Today, you learned firsthand what can happen.”
“You and your cousin seemed to handle the situation rather well.”
“However most people are as inept as that raccoon who got us into that mess. Not that it’s their fault. I’m not saying that, but they were not raised to understand the wood. I would like to teach them.”
“It sounds like Bree is lucky to have you. You might raise the most successful family in your village.” Said Whilo as Alder served them both from the cauldron. The flavor of the soup was unfamiliar. He assumed it came from what Alder scavenged from the forest, but it was an enjoyable taste all the same. “It does me good to hear you say that, Whilo. Believe me, I intend to, and yet… something troubles me.” Alder held his spoon over his bowl, almost as if he’d forgotten to take his first bite. “What is that?” Whilo asked. Toward the bottom of his soup, the flavor became strong and tangy, and he immediately drank the whole thing down. “What if I’m not able to teach her? What if my children don’t learn, and they end up like all the others who were taken?”
“My guess is that Bree is smart enough to learn, if she’s anything like you.”
“She’s brilliant, and she’s even a tutor to the neighbors’ children, but our village and the Wood are two different worlds with their own set of rules.” Whilo nodded and put his bowl on the little table to the side, then stretched out his legs onto the footstool in front of him. “Well, I’ve learned a lot about you in these two days, Alder, and from our little fiasco earlier today, I’d say you’re more than capable of protecting Bree. You were the first one to see the snake, and you stood in front of us. You looked like you were going to take him on head on! Not to mention, you and Lilly were agile enough to dodge it when it attacked; I only managed to slip buy. I would even go so far as to think that Bree agreed to marry you, because she knew full well that you would take care of your family better than anyone else could.” Alder chuckled and finally took his first bite. “Thank you Whilo.” He ate silently for a moment, and their attention was drawn to the crackling fire.
Then after a while, he said something that Whilo did not see coming, “I think that’s why my cousin is interested in you.” Whilo turned to look at him. “Come again?”
“Lilly. She likes you.” Whilo laughed out loud and shook his head dismissively. Alder just continued to eat. “Alder, I don’t know what you think you saw…”
“You were asleep, but when Lilly first showed up, while we were talking, she kept glancing over at you.”
“She said so herself that she didn’t recognize me. From what it sounds like, strangers are a big deal here.” For a second, Alder choked on his soup. “So are pretty boys.”
“When we set out for the cave, just before she walked over to your side, she whispered to me about how neat she thought you were. Then, after you led us into that cleft and helped us escape the giant serpent, she told me that she saw something in you—something that set you apart from all the others.”
“Oh…” Alder drank down to the bottom of his bowl and laid it aside. “If I’m to be honest, I’d say this is a great thing. Lilly needs someone…someone besides Patch.”
“You don’t think Patch is enough company for her?” Whilo cut himself short, because the remark seemed to sadden Alder a little. “Do you not like her all that much, Whilo?”
“Oh, no, don’t take me to mean that, Alder. I’ve had more fun with Lilly than I had in my entire life. But the thing is, I’ve never had that kind of a relationship with someone. I don’t know what all that entails. And on top of that, I don’t think what she sees in me is really there.” Alder kicked his feet up onto the stool and sighed. “Well, that last thing you said is completely wrong. Lilly teased us for going off camping when we had just met each other, but she’s experiencing the same thing with you. I invited you to come camping with me because something told me to. Something brought you to my river. Lilly said so herself that she wasn’t expecting to find the two of us out where she was going, and yet there we were, and on top of that she’s taken to liking you because of that inexplicable tug.
“This concept is foreign to the villagers in my home, but there is a living spirit in these woods. Lilly and I don’t know what it’s called or if it’s a part of the forest or a mind of its own or…whatever, but one thing we do know is, it’s real. In these recent years, nothing very providential seemed to have been happening, and we became less and less thoughtful of it until now. Its work is unmistakable. We think your arrival might have started something out here, Whilo. Something that involves all three of us.”
Whilo had just been sitting there, listening intently. Then Alder palmed his forehead. “I’m sorry. I just started spouting all of this nonsense, and I’m probably scaring you now for no reason.” Whilo shook his head. “The scariest thing about everything you’re saying is that it makes sense. I felt the tug that you’re talking about. The three of us definitely have something in common that seems to be drawing us together, but I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” Alder got up and served himself some more of the tangy soup. “If I know anything about the living Spirit, it puts us in the place we need to be, and then explains itself later. Do you want some more of this? I have a lot left over.”
“Thank you, but I seriously have to get back home now.”
“Fair enough.” They shook hands and said warm goodbyes, and Whilo started back home as the sun began to set again. When he reached Shane again, he wasn’t surprised that coming home did not feel like coming home. He had that feeling one gets when he starts off on an errand, but can’t quite shake the feeling that he’s left something behind. His first sign that something was amiss occurred when he approached the fork in the road, and he saw a man crossing over the bridge, coming down from the road that went left. When they met at the fork, the man stared at him warily. “Whilo?”
“Hi, Uncle Tom.”
“You went down into the cursed woods. After everything we warned you about? After everything your parents warned you about? What would they think if they could see this?”
“I don’t think they would want the living putting words in their mouths.” Answered Whilo, and he walked back to his house on the edge of town and went to sleep. But it was not as happy as his night under the stars with monsters in the shadows and the lone friend he had made in a day. No one in Shane treated him the same after that.