For hours we play, allowing the magic to flower fully within us till we feel that time itself is ours to hold. The hope that has been dormant in each of us blooms again, and we are giddy with the happiness that possibility brings. Felicity lazes in a swing she has fashioned from soft, leafy vines. She lets it cradle her and she drags her toes across the velvety grass.
"If only we could show the world the depth of our power..." Felicity trails off, smiling.
Ann picks a dandelion puff from the tall grass. "I should stand on the stage beside Lily Trimble."
I correct her. "Lily Trimble should beg to stand beside you!"
Ann brings her hands dramatically to her bosom. " 'Fair is foul, and foul is fair!'"
"Bravo!" Felicity and I applaud.
"Oh, and I should be very, very beautiful.And wealthy! And I should marry an earl and have ten children!" Ann closes her eyes in a wish and blows hard on her dandelion, but the wind carries only part of the fluff away.
"What would you wish for, Gemma? What do you want?" Felicity asks.
What do I want? Why is that simple question—four little words—so impossible to answer? I would wish for things that cannot be: my mother alive again, my father well. Would I wish to be shorter, fairer, more lovable, less complicated? The answer, I fear, is yes. I would wish to be a child again, safe and warm, and yet I would also wish for something far more dangerous: a kiss from a certain Indian boy whom I have not seen since Christmas. I am a jumble of passions, misgivings, and wants. It seems that I am always in a state of wishing and rarely in a state of contentment.
They are waiting for my answer."I should wish to perfect my curtsy so that I might not scandalize myself before Her Majesty."
"That will take magic," Ann says dryly.
"Thank you for your confidence. I do so appreciate it."
"I should bring Pip back," Felicity says.
Ann bites her lip. "Do you suppose she really is lost to the Winterlands, Gemma?"
I look out over the endless meadow. The flowers sway in a gentle breeze. "I don't know."
"She isn't," Felicity says, her cheeks reddening.
"That is where she was headed," I remind her gently.
The last time we saw our dear friend, she was already turning, becoming one of them. She wanted me to use the magic to bring her back to our world, but I couldn’t. The creatures cannot come back. It is a rule I couldn't break, and Pippa hated me for it. Sometimes I believe Fee hates me for it too.
"I know Pip, I tell you. She would never leave me like that."
"Perhaps we'll see her soon," I say. But I’m not looking forward to it. If Pippa has truly become a Winterlands creature, she is no longer our friend. She is our enemy.
Felicity grabs her sword and sets off for the trees.
"Where are you going?" I shout.
"To find Pip.You may come or not."
We go, of course. Once Fee has set her mind on something, there's no talking sense into her. And I want to know the truth, though I hope we'll not see Pip. For her sake and ours, I hope she's already crossed over the river.
Felicity leads us through a flower-laden meadow. It smells of hyacinth and my father's pipe tobacco, fresh dosa, and my mother's skin-warmed rose water. I turn around, half expecting to see my mother behind me. But she isn't. She's gone, dead nearly a full year now. Sometimes I miss her so deeply it is as if I cannot breathe without feeling an ache lodged in my ribs. Other times I find that I've forgotten small things about her — the shape of her mouth or the sound of her laugh. I cannot conjure her memory. When that happens, I'm nearly in a panic to remember. I am afraid that if I cannot hold on to these memories exactly, I'll lose her forever.
We come to the poppy fields below the Caves of Sighs. The bright red flowers show us their dark hearts. Felicity picks one and places it behind her ear. High above us, the cliffs rise. The char pots belch their rainbow of smoke, hiding the very top, where the Untouchables guard the Temple and the well of eternity. It is the last place I saw Circe.
She's dead, Gemma. You killed her.
Yet I heard her voice in a dream, telling me she was still alive.
I saw her face, ghostly white, in the well's depths.
"Gemma, what is the matter?" Ann asks.
I shake my head as if I can clear it of Circe's memory forever.
We walk for some time, until the lush ripeness of the meadow gives way to thick copses of gnarled trees. The sky is gloomy here, as if it has been streaked with soot. There are no flowers, no bushes. In fact, there is no color at all, save for the brown of the brittle trees and the gray of the sky above them.
"Ugh," Felicity says. She lifts her boot and shows us the bottom.
It is dark and mealy, like rotted fruit. When I look up, I see that the trees are laden with what seem to be clusters of berries. They hang flat and defeated on the branches.
"Oh, what has happened here?" Ann wonders aloud, pulling a rotting husk from a branch.
"I don’t know," I say. "Let's change it back, shall we?"
We put our hands on a trunk. Color flows beneath its withered bark. Leaves burst through the broken skin of the tree with a sound like the earth itself cracking open. Vines slither along the dusty ground. The shrunken fruits grow fat and purplish red; the branches sag under their succulence. The magic surges in me, and I feel as ripe and beautiful as the fruit.
I grab Ann, who yelps as I lead her about in a giddy waltz. I let go and take hold of Felicity, who, being Felicity, insists on leading. Soon we're all twirling round and round dizzyingly fast, my happiness fed by theirs.
Sudden thunder rumbles in the distance; the sky pulses red like an angry abrasion. I lose my hold on the others and we fly apart. Ann lands hard with an "oomph."
"Did you see that?" I ask, running toward the path. "The sky turned all funny for a moment."
"Where?" Felicity searches the sky, which has settled into dusk again.
"That way," I say, leading them on.
We walk until we reach a long wall of brambles whose thorns are both sharp and plentiful.
"What now?" Ann asks.
Through the small gaps in the brambles, I see a strange mixture of green and rock, fog and twisted trees, much like the English moors in the Brontë sisters' eerie tales. And farther on, something rises from the mist.
"What is that?" I ask, squinting.
Felicity searches for a peephole. "This is hopeless. I can't see a thing. Let's find a way in."
She sets off running down the hard path, stopping here and there to test the strength of the bramble wall.
"Ahhh!" I pull my hand back. I've pricked my finger on one of the sharp points. My blood stains the tip. With an anguished sigh, the brambles unclasp. The long, thorny threads slither free of each other like snakes scattering. We fall back as a wide hole appears.
"What should we do now?" Ann whispers.
"We go inside," Felicity answers, and there is the hint of a dare in her smile.
We squeeze through the narrow opening and toward the barren forest. The air is noticeably cooler. It tickles our skin into gooseflesh.Thick vines twist along the ground, strangling the trunks of the trees, choking off much of what might grow here.A few valiant flowers poke their heads up here and there.
They are few but large and beautiful — a deep purple with petals as fat as a man's fist. Everything is coated in a blue light that reminds me of dusk in winter. The land here has a peculiar feel. I am drawn to it, yet I want to run. It is like a warning, this land.
We reach the edge of the forest and are astonished at what we see. On a hill is a magnificent ruin of a castle. Its sides are overgrown with a pale, sickly moss and thick, ropelike vines gone tough with age. Tree roots have grown into the stones. They are like bony fingers twisting and turning about the castle, holding it tight in an unwelcome embrace. One limestone tower refuses to be taken, however. It rises majestically from the hill's grasping hands.
The ground near it is covered in a fine coating of frost. It is like a doll's castle under a shaking of powdery sugar. It is odd here. Hushed as a first snowfall.
"What is this place?" Ann asks.
"Let's have a look inside!" Felicity leaps forward, but I pull her back.
"Fee! We've no idea where we are or who lives there!"
"Exactly!" she says, as if I have missed the entire point of our excursion.
"Might I remind you of the Poppy Warriors?" I say, invoking the name of those gruesome knights who lured us to their cathedral in hopes of killing us and taking the magic for themselves.
As we ran for our lives, they transformed into enormous black birds, chasing us out onto the water. We were lucky to escape them, and I shan't make the same mistake twice.
Ann shivers."Gemma's right. Let's go back."
The stillness is broken by the rustling of leaves.A call comes from the forest; it puts a shiver up my spine.
"What was that?" Ann whispers.
"An owl?" I say, my breath coming fast.
"No, I don’t think so," Felicity says.
We huddle close. Felicity draws her sword. Magic swoops through me, battling my fear. There’s movement to my right, a flash of white amidst the green. Just as quickly, something scurries through the thicket of trees on the left.
It seems to be all around us. A sound here; a sound there. A streak of color darts past.
Closer now. I hardly know which way to turn. The bushes are still. But someone's watching us. I can feel it.
"Sh-show yourselves," I say, my voice pale as a slice of moon.
She steps from behind a tree. Framed in the dusky purple of night, she seems to glow. Her white gown's gone brown with dirt around the bottom; her skin is the color of the dead. In her matted hair, she wears a crown of flowers that have died and turned to weeds. But we know her all the same. She is the friend we buried months ago, the friend who would not cross the river, whom we thought lost to the Winterlands.
I say her name on a terrified whisper. "Pippa."
Excerpted from THE SWEET FAR THING © Copyright 2011 by Libba Bray. Reprinted with permission by Delacorte Books for Young Readers, Inc. All rights reserved.
The Sweet Far Thing