As it turned out, the hallway was sunken in the ground, and so the first thing she saw was a flight of broad stone steps leading upward. Leaves had collected in drifts at the bottom and on the edges of the stairs. They crackled as she walked upward.
It was a little cold. Summer was wearing a T-shirt with short sleeves. She rubbed her arms to warm them.
At the top of the steps was a forest. She turned to look behind her, and the hall was buried, up to the bottoms of the stained glass windows. Moss grew up the stone walls and ferns had sprouted in the cracks.
It was an odd forest.
The air was dry, much drier than it had been back home, and the nearby trees had gnarled, contorted trunks. Their leaves were shaped like the Ace of Spades on a deck of cards.
Farther away from the hall, the contorted trees gave way to tall pines. There were pine needles all over the ground, and not very many smaller plants. Summer felt as if she were walking through an enormous room with lots of pillars holding up the ceiling.
There was a particularly enormous tree off in the distance, with white bark that was scabbed and spotted, almost like a Holstein cow. Could you have a Holstein tree?
For lack of anything else to do, she walked toward it.
Leaves crunched under her feet, then the crunching became muffled as she reached the pine needles. In the distance, she could see other trees like the ones around the buried hall, crowding their trunks together and dusted with ferns. Between those trees were the tall, tall pines.
“I smell desert,” said the weasel. He sat up on her shoulder, his small nose working furiously.
“We’re in the woods,” said Summer, not arguing, just stating a fact.
He gave a short, sharp nod. “I know. But I smell desert. We’re at an edge place, I think. Those trees—those are cottonwoods. They’re growing up wherever there’s a seep of water.”
“Does that mean anything?” asked Summer. “That we’re in a desert, I mean, not about the trees.”
The weasel shrugged a rolling weasel shrug. “It means the mice will be fast as fury.”
“I thought deserts were hot,” said Summer, wrapping her arms around herself.
“Not at night. Not in winter. Maybe not in this place, ever.”
She hoped that she wouldn’t have to spend the night here, wherever here was.
Summer wondered if this counted as being lost. She did not feel an immediate urge to begin weeping or running in circles or calling for a policeman or a park ranger or any of the usual things that children are supposed to do when they’re lost.
Part of that was because Summer was a sensible girl and knew that weeping and running in circles, however satisfying it might be at the moment, was not going to help very much. And partly it was that Summer knew full well that an enormous sunken hall and a forest-that-might-be-a-desert would not fit anywhere in the alley behind her house. She had not gotten lost in a city park or someone’s backyard, and therefore it was not a matter of finding the nearest cross-street and figuring out how to get back home before her mother noticed she was gone.
But Summer had read a lot of books, and among her very favorites were stories of children who opened doors and wandered into Narnia or Fairyland or some mysterious world on the other side of the hedge. It was patently obvious that this was what had happened to her. Baba Yaga had given her a weasel and kicked her out the door into…someplace else.
If she was indeed in another world, then two things would happen. Either time would go differently, and her mother would never notice she had been gone (and Summer hoped very devoutly that this was the case) or time would go on in its usual rollicking way, and by the time Summer managed to get home, it would be hours or days later.
And at that point, Summer said to herself, I shall be in so much trouble that it will not actually be possible for me to get in any more trouble, so it doesn’t really matter how long it takes.
There is something very freeing about knowing that you are in the worst possible trouble that you can be in. No matter what you do, it cannot possibly get any worse. Summer would get home and be grounded until she was eighteen, and even if she dyed her hair pink and got her ears pierced while in Fairyland (somehow she didn’t think they did that sort of thing in Narnia) she couldn’t be grounded any longer than that.
As the saint’s book had said, Don’t worry about things you cannot fix.
She strode out with a light heart.
The spotted tree turned out to be farther away than it looked. By the time she got near it, she was starting to get thirsty, and she was no longer cold at all.
It was a very large tree. The branches went up as tall as a skyscraper, and the trunk was as big around as a house. Summer stopped many feet back from the trunk and craned her neck backwards, trying to see the whole tree at once.
“Do you think it’s magic?” she asked the weasel.
“All really old trees are magic,” he said, rummaging around in her pockets with his paws. “You’ve got a lock in your pocket. Did you know that?”
“It’s from the gate,” she said absently. “It was nice and opened up when I asked. Do you think this one is more magic, though?”
The weasel looked up at the tree, then back down into her pocket. “Probably not. These are excellent pockets, by the way. You don’t usually get ones this size.”
The pockets were, in fact, part of the reason that these were Summer’s favorite jeans, but she had other things on her mind at the moment than tailoring. “It could be,” she said. “The Vikings thought the world was built on a giant tree.” (In addition to books about visiting other worlds, Summer had read a lot of mythology, which was almost as good.)
“Yggdrasil,” said the weasel. Summer tried not to resent the fact that he could pronounce the name easily. He looked up at the tree, scampered over to her other shoulder and looked at it from that angle. “Yggdrasil’s bigger,” he said, and went back to digging around in her pockets.
“What are you looking for?” she asked, annoyed.
“I was hoping you might have an egg.”
“I don’t carry eggs around in my pockets!”
“Then there’s not much point in having pockets, is there?”
As if their voices had woken it, the tree shook itself. Leaves tumbled from the highest branches and fell around them.
The nearest leaf struck the ground and stopped being a leaf. It became—or perhaps it always had been—a lizard, a flat-bodied, stubby-legged lizard like a horned toad. It scurried away through the pine needles.
Summer took a step back, surprised. She could hear the rustling as other leaf-lizards ran off through the forest.
“On the other hand,” said the weasel, “it might be magic after all.”
They walked around the tree, slowly. The leaves were broad and flat. One drifted down, just out of reach, and Summer jumped forward and caught it in her hand.
It was just a leaf. It had tight little veins, like a lizard’s scales, and the stem was thick and curved like a tail, but it was definitely a leaf.
She dropped it.
It turned into a lizard when it hit the ground, scampered over her shoe, and vanished into the leaves.
There was another spotted white tree beyond the first, not so far away. Summer walked toward it, delighted. She was ready to see marvels, and the tree did not disappoint.
Its leaves were long and pointed and slightly furry, the way lamb’s-ear or mullein is furry. They tumbled to the ground and became mice, beautiful white mice with intelligent eyes, who squeaked and danced and ran in circles, chasing their own pink tails.
The weasel chattered his jaw, the way a cat will when it sees a bird, but stayed on Summer’s shoulder. “Tempting,” he said. “Verrrry tempting. But they’re either leaves enchanted to look like mice or mice enchanted to look like leaves, and enchantment curdles in your stomach when you eat it.”
There was a third white tree, forming a line with the first two. Summer walked toward it in a hurry, so that the weasel didn’t get any ideas.
But there was something wrong with the third tree.
The leaves were green, green as glass bottles, small and blunt with hardly any stem at all. It was obvious even as they fell that they would be frogs.
Little green frogs, thought Summer, like little emeralds.
But they did not change. They touched the ground and they were only leaves.
The tree rustled its branches, harder, and more leaves showered down. She heard the trunk groan, the way trees groan and mutter in a storm.
These leaves hopped. Some of them changed, but there was something wrong with the frogs. They had no legs or too many legs or they plowed forward on their bellies. In a very few seconds they were all leaves again, and Summer was glad, because there was something horrible and piteous about the frogs. They had looked as if they were dying.
The white tree thrashed. Its limbs swayed in a gale that only it could feel. Behind them, the other two white trees moaned and swayed in sympathy.
Every leaf on the tree fell down, leaving the branches as bare as winter.
Many people have heard of a rain of frogs, but very few—far fewer than say they have—have ever seen one. Summer became one of those few. For a moment the air was full of tiny green frogs, transforming before they even hit the ground, all of them croaking like fingernails dragged over a comb.
They rushed into the leaves, hopping and dancing, croaking and cavorting, and Summer let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. She had been terribly afraid that the tree would not be able to do it.
Indeed, the tree looked exhausted. Its branches drooped and it shivered. Summer took a step forward and put a hand on its bark.
“You did it,” she said to the tree. “They’re beautiful.”
The tree muttered something in the language of trees and let out a long wooden sigh.
“It did,” said a woman’s voice behind her, “but it cost the tree dearly.”
Summer spun around. The weasel squeaked and dove into her pocket.
A bear stood behind her—or not a bear. For a moment Summer could have sworn she saw the flash of teeth, the heavy jaw and small black eyes—and then the woman pushed back her hood, and it was only the skin of a bear. Her face bore the haggard remains of great beauty, and her voice was hoarse with disuse.
“What’s wrong with the tree?” asked Summer, who felt sorry for it and proud of it for making the frogs, all at once.
“The same thing that is wrong with all of us,” said the woman in the bear skin. She looked proud and angry and tired, and her eyes did not soften as they rested on Summer’s face. “There is a cancer at the heart of the world.”
In movies, when someone has just made a very dramatic statement, everyone gasps or recoils in horror, so you might think that when Summer heard the bear woman say, “There is a cancer at the heart of the world,” she would have done something similar. In real life, though, a very dramatic statement is usually met with awkward silence, and then somebody makes a joke to try to break the silence, and somebody else decides they need a cup of tea.
Summer would have liked a cup of tea, but there didn’t seem to be much chance of getting one in the middle of the forest, and she still wasn’t entirely sure that the woman in the bearskin hadn’t been an actual bear a minute ago. Jokes might not be a good idea.
She said, “Um.”
The woman in the bearskin frowned, and another woman popped up next to her, wearing a bristly skin with a great tusked boar’s head on top. “Are you on about that again, then?” she asked, and turned to Summer. “Never mind her.”
“No one minds me,” said the bear woman, a good deal less dramatically. She sniffed.
“I’m Boarskin,” said the woman wearing the boar’s head on top of her own. “This is Bearskin. Our sister Donkeyskin is around somewhere, but she has a hard time with strangers.”
“I’m Summer,” said Summer shyly. She wondered if she should introduce the weasel, but he didn’t say anything, so she decided not to. She kept one hand on the bark of the Frog Tree. “Please—if you know—can you tell me what’s wrong with the tree? Can we help it?”
Bearskin opened her mouth to say something, and Boarskin thumped her in the ribs with her elbow. They didn’t look very much like sisters. Bearskin had long blonde hair streaked with gray, and Boarskin’s hair was short and black and bristly.
“There’s a great many things wrong,” said Boarskin. “But one thing in particular, you understand, and not something I want to talk about in the open, where anybody might be listening.” She nodded to the tree. “As for whether you can help it—well, I suppose you might. If you had great courage and great good luck.”
“Oh,” said Summer glumly. She knew that she didn’t have great courage, but she did feel badly for the poor tree. “Maybe—maybe some fertilizer?”
“I’m afraid it’s not that kind of tree,” said Boarskin kindly.
“There used to be others,” said Bearskin, in her angry, prophetic voice. “One with leaves like a weeping willow, that fell down and became snakes with cut glass eyes. One with striped brown nuts that turned into quail chicks. You can see their trunks rotting in the woods if you walk far enough.”
“Oh no,” said Summer, feeling her eyes prickle with tears. Were they saying that the poor Frog Tree was doomed? What about the Mouse Tree and the Tree of Horned Toads?
“Leave off,” said Boarskin to her sister. “You’ve said quite enough. It might not happen, or it might not happen just that way.”
Bearskin folded her arms and turned her back on her sister.
“Come on,” said Boarskin to Summer. “You don’t look to have been here long, but traveling between worlds takes it out of a body. Come have some tea and we’ll talk.”
“Okay,” said Summer. She looked up at the Frog Tree, at the bare branches. She could hear the rustling of the frogs hopping about in the leaves, and her heart clenched in her chest. It was one thing not to know that a tree with leaves that turned into frogs existed—quite another to know that it had existed once and now was dying.
She laid her cheek against the tree’s beautiful spotted bark and whispered: “Your frogs were wonderful. Please don’t die.”
The tree sighed.
The bark did a strange thing under her cheek. She stepped back in a hurry, and saw it ripple like water, and then a hand came out and a shoulder and a head.
It was a person, although Summer couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl or neither or both. Its skin and its hair and its eyes were the same white-mottled color as the bark, and it had an enormous number of rooty fingers.
It smiled at Summer, and held out its hand. When Summer held hers out in response, the bark-person dropped something into her palm. Then it stepped back into the tree, like a swimmer stepping in the water, and was gone.
“Dryad,” said Boarskin. “Hmm.” For a moment her gaze was as sharp as her sister’s. “They don’t come out often. Whatever it gave you, keep it safe. It might just be a souvenir, but…well.”
Summer looked down at the object in her hand.
It was an acorn carved—or seeing where it had come from, perhaps not carved after all—into the shape of a tadpole. The stem was a thick paddle of tail, and the shell of the acorn had goggling eyes and tiny, tight-folded webbed feet.
She put it in her pocket next to the friendly padlock. The weasel moved against her fingers, the brush of his tail like a kiss on her knuckles.
“Come on, then,” said Boarskin. Summer followed her, with several backward glances, into the desert forest.