The first words Ellis wrote to the woods were Please come back. She was nine years old, sitting on the bank of the river in the Wild Wood. Zane had named it that. When she came home with muddy shoes and wind-tangled hair, he’d say something like, “Has the hobgoblin been to her Wild Wood again?” And she’d reply, “Yes,” because it was wild and it was hers.
No one but Ellis went in the forest that bordered the trailer park and stretched far beyond the other side of the river. Other people thought that bit of water and trees was just a lot of nothing. They couldn’t see how pretty it was. To get in from the trailer park, they would have to know how to crawl through a thicket of rose and blackberry thorns. Ellis knew the exact spot. It was like a magic door.
The day she wrote the first note, she’d gone straight in from the school bus. She’d done that most days for the last few months since her mother had gotten worse. She liked to sit by the river to do her homework, but that day the math problems sat unsolved in her lap. All she wanted to do was watch the river.
The water was high from spring rains, all kinds of stuff floating past fast. Leaves, branches, a paper cup. A ghostly white cloth that might be a T-shirt slithered over a riffle of rocks. It caught on a submerged branch for a while, but the river worked at it, pulling and fretting, until the cloth jerked away from the branch. Ellis sat up to see if it would get caught again. But the ghost shirt disappeared, sucked by swirling currents into the deep black water. For some reason, she felt as if her insides had sunk down with it.
She ripped a little square from her notebook paper and wrote the three words. Please come back. She stared at them for a long time, then added two more. From Ellis.
She folded the paper in half and tossed it into the river. She watched the little boat glide swiftly away on the gray glass of water. She imagined her words as five staunch sailors who would endure the hazards of rough water to deliver her message. She watched those words until they disappeared around the river bend.
Sending the message felt satisfying. As if something important had transpired between her and the river.
When her note hadn’t brought results a few days later, she decided to be more specific. That blustery April day, she wrote in careful script, Dear Wind, Please bring Zane back. From Ellis. She scaled her climbing tree to the usual high branch, waited for a strong gust of wind, and let the tiny letter go. It flew out of sight much faster than the first message. She hoped that was a good sign.
It wasn’t, not for bringing Zane back, but she kept writing to the woods anyway. She sent more words downriver and into the wind, tucked tiny messages into tree roots, laid them under rocks, sank them into the soft punk of rotting logs.
She didn’t know why she kept doing it. It just felt good, maybe how some kids felt when they talked to God in their prayers. After a while, you figured out no one was going to answer. That made it better, really, because you could say any secret thing you wouldn’t say to someone who was listening. That was all that mattered, getting some of the words out before they piled too full inside you.
DAUGHTER OF THE WILD WOOD
Ellis saw a dark hollow at the base of an oak. It would be a good place to put a message.
What would she write? How would she word what she’d seen when she still couldn’t comprehend it?
She tried to imagine how her nine-year-old self would say it. Concisely, on a small shred of paper: Dear Tree, Jonah has betrayed me. I don’t know what to do. From Ellis.
What she wanted to write was, What should I do? But other than the day she’d asked the wind to bring Zane back, she usually didn’t ask for something directly. Writing the notes had mostly been a way to work through events that troubled her. She did it for years, the messages increasing in length as she got older.
Dear Rock, I wonder where Zane is and if he misses me.
Dear Tree, Mom won’t get up and I have no food. Maybe I should ask Edith for supper.
Dear Salamander, Today Heather told me I should wash my clothes. She said it in front of everyone on the bus. I wish I lived under this log with you. You get to be as dirty as you want.
Jasper and River had run ahead. They were almost at the little pier that jutted over the forest pond.
Ellis had to pull her mind back to where she was.
“Careful!” she called. “Don’t get too close to the water.” The boys were four and a half and had been taught how to stay afloat in swim lessons, but she still feared their nearness to the deep black water.
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