If they get home too close to Shabbos, Mommy’s never going to let them wander the woods again on a Friday afternoon
It’s huge, built like a predator — strong and vicious. Nellie is pretty sure that it’s got teeth sharp and mighty enough to bite off her arm in one chomp. It runs faster than any human, and it’s bound to catch up to Eli and her if they don’t speed up.
At least, that’s what Nellie had gotten from her two-second glimpse of movement in the woods. “It’s a hyena!” she pants to Eli. “I can hear it laughing!”
Her twin brother gives her a skeptical look. “Hyenas are from Africa. At worst, you saw a coyote. Or a deer.”
“Coyote.” Nellie repeats. There’s no way she just ran away from a deer. She can still imagine its long, slavering snout and the angry look in its eyes. “Hurry! It’s going to catch up to us! And it’s nearly Shabbos,” she adds as an afterthought.
The woods behind their house stretch far and deep, surrounding the edge of their town, Lionstone, until the next town, five miles away. Only recently have they been allowed to wander it by themselves. (“I used to have such adventures in the woods,” Zaidy Zee reminisced when they’d begged Mommy and Tatty to go in deeper. “It’s good for children to have some independence. Plus, they’ll always have each other.”) But if they get home too close to Shabbos, Mommy’s never going to let them wander the woods again on a Friday afternoon.
And if they get eaten by a coyote, they’re never going into the woods again. “This way! They can’t climb trees!” Nellie says as she grabs a branch and swings herself up easily, climbing across a thick branch to the next tree.
“Yes, they can,” Eli says, squinting up at her. “You know, if there’s a coyote at all.”
“Ugh.” Nellie wrinkles her freckled nose at him and then laughs, even past the possibly-being-eaten fear. Sometimes it feels like Eli knows everything. He’s her personal encyclopedia, all wrapped up in a nearly identical head.
Nellie’s special skill? She can go anywhere and everywhere.
She walks carefully but quickly across the branch, then lets go and catches another branch just below. Eli walks underneath her, moving slowly; he doesn’t really believe her about the coyote. “Faster, Eli! It’s coming!” she squeals as she traps the next branch between her feet and pulls herself up to the next tree.
Eli looks unsure. “Do you… see it?” Nellie twists around. “I see something,” she announces. Something shifts through the trees, a flash of brown and tan. Suddenly, it leaps right at her. She drops in a panic, landing in a heap on a pile of leaves – ouch, broken twigs. The coyote has caught up to them. They’re totally going to be its Shabbos dinner.
Peeking up, she sees the creature on a branch. But it’s not the coyote. It’s a squirrel! It has chestnut brown fur with an odd tan stripe across its fluffy tail. It chitters as though it’s laughing at her.
She glares at it. Eli, on the other hand, seems happy to see it. “Hi there,” he says, in the gentle tone that he usually uses when he’s talking to their cute baby cousins or when Kivi gets hurt.
The squirrel chitters again, then whips its head around as if it hears something else. “See?” Nellie says with a proud grin. “Even the squirrel knows the coyote is — yikes!” The squirrel lands right on her head. Nellie flails around, trying desperately to shoo it away. Eli tries to help as well but it doesn’t budge. The squirrel cackles — at least it sounds like a cackle — and then takes off.
Eli follows it. “I think Squizzle is showing us where to run to safety,” he says.
Nellie jumps up, fully recovered, and races alongside him. “Did you name the squirrel Squizzle?”
“I said squirrel!” Eli protests. The squirrel turns to give Nellie a nasty look. Nellie glares back at it. Squizzle it is. “Hurry up, he’s getting further ahead,” Eli shouts, “and he doesn’t want to wait!”
“How do you know what he wants?” Nellie shouts back. Squizzle zips ahead, jumping from tree trunk to the ground and back. Every now and then, it looks back to see if they’re behind. In the distance, Nellie thinks she hears a howl. Do coyotes howl? Or is that a wolf, too?
The sun is low in the sky, just dipping down so that it shines right into Nellie’s eyes. She’s sure it’s just about Shabbos now. But Squizzle leads them through a clearing, over some underbrush, and then down between two tightly locked trees. Soon, Nellie hears the sound of moving water.
They duck beneath a sparrow nest and past a rocky hill. And then, she sees it, a rushing waterfall… as tall as five Nellies stacked atop each other. A rocky brook lies beyond it, curving around the trees like a big wiggly snake. Nellie has never seen it before. “Wow.” Parts of the brook look deep enough to swim in, and the rocks in it are spaced just right for hopping across.
“Wow!” Eli echoes, mouth agape. But he isn’t looking at the brook or the waterfall. He’s staring at the knobby tree right past it. “Check that out, Nellie.” The tree is tall and thick with strange bits of it sticking out in ways that don’t quite belong. As Nellie stares at it, the tree seems to bend, in and out and in and out. It reminds her of something familiar. Almost like…
“Is that…is there a staircase carved into it?” she asks, moving closer to see.
“Not carved. I think the tree formed that way,” Eli responds as he tries to cross the brook, stepping gingerly from one rock to the next. He slips and totters from side to side as Nellie leaps towards him to catch his elbow.
Together, they make their way across the brook. Squizzle is ahead of them, chittering impatiently and moving his little arms as though he’s beckoning them to follow. There is something eerie about the tree, something that calls to Nellie.
Nellie climbs onto the first step of the trunk as it leads her up, above the first layer of branches, leaves, and roots so large that she can walk between them. “Look,” Eli says from behind her. “It’s a treehouse!”
Nellie gapes at it in awe. It’s a treetop house, made from old doors, crates, and logs tied together. It looks like it might fall at any moment. But when Nellie grabs onto the square door above her, it’s surprisingly sturdy. It seems as though it has stood here for many, many years.
She pulls herself inside and peers around, half expecting the inside to be old and rotten, an abandoned treehouse that no one has entered in years. But the room in front of her is carved from wood. The trunk of the tree forms a rugged wall at one end, and there are round chairs rising like stumps from the ground. A squashy cushion lies in one corner, wide enough to fit Eli, Nellie, their little brother Kivi, and their older sister Rikki easily. Above the cushion is what seems to be a loft. A rope ladder hangs down from it, too high for Eli and Nellie to reach easily.
“I don’t believe this,” Eli breathes, gaping around the room. “We’re in the middle of the woods. No one lives around here. How does this place exist?”
Nellie glances around the room and finds another mystery. “How is there more?” she asks. There’s a doorway on the wall made of the trunk, leading to another room. “How big was that tree?”
“Not big enough for this,” Eli says, leading the way forward. Squizzle chitters and climbs up the wall, dropping to land on Eli’s shoulder. Eli pets him absently, eyes fixed on what lies ahead.
Because it’s just — incredible. There’s a room lit with lavender-tinged glass balls, each one hanging from the ceiling at different lengths with strange scenes inside of them. An empty space beneath it has crisscrossing branches and reddish vines. Nellie grabs one and climbs, catlike, through the branches to swing across to the other side. But that’s not all. A room higher on the trunk contains strange tools and mysterious diagrams plastered across the walls, a whirling vortex at its center. And even higher, a small room that has a rope ladder hanging all the way down to the ground, with a tiny window from where Nellie can see the lake that the brook feeds from a distance. She knows that lake — it’s just a few blocks from their house, which means that she knows the way home now, too.
“This is amazing,” Nellie says. She wants to stay here for hours, to make this strange, impossible place her own. “Eli, we have to explore everything here. I want to go back down — to see that room with the vines, and what was in that vortex in the other —”
But Eli is staring out the window, his face dejected. “We can’t,” he says quietly. “Look at the sun.”
The sun is sinking below the trees. Nellie lets out a sigh. She loves Shabbos, she does, but the treehouse beckons, and she hates to leave it behind. “We have to go,” she says gloomily.
Something glitters through the treehouse — quick, shining, like a cloud of gleaming dust — and gathers them up. Nellie shouts, but in an instant, they are standing on the ground again, on the other side of the brook where they’d started. “The treehouse helped us,” Eli says, his face bright.
“We’ll be back,” Nellie promises, gazing up at the big tree. “I know it. We’ll find you again.”
She looks around, memorizing the forest around her. Then they take off, racing home for Shabbos.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 980)
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