Her name was Jude, thank you very much. No, not Judy, like Auntie Sherri insisted on calling her, and certainly not Judith, like her mother called her when she was angry. Just Jude, plain and simple. Yes, Jude like the boy’s name; yes, Jude like one of those obscure books in the Bible that no one but a preacher had ever read.
Well, at least it was easy to spell.
She pulled on her Yukon hat and took a moment to marvel at herself in the mirror… or what she could see of herself. The hat covered the top half of her eyes but she smiled proudly anyway. Dad had been looking for his trusty Yukon hat for awhile and Jude had found it covered in dirt and worms after their massive golden retriever, Bear, buried it in the garden. She was going to give it back. Eventually.
“Come on, Bear. It’s time to get going.” He was still fast asleep on her bed. He opened one eye and let out a massive yawn before flopping over onto his back.
“Get up, you lazy dog! We gotta get going!” When he simply huffed, she grabbed at his collar. He cried like he was in pain, but Jude rolled her eyes. She knew just as well as Bear did that he was perfectly fine and just being difficult. At last, the annoyance of having a collar dig into his neck seemed to overtake his desire to keep sleeping, so he rolled off the bed, his slobbery face grazing Jude’s leg. And with mixed fear and excitement, she grabbed the satchel she had packed the night before, drew open the window, pushed Bear’s gangly body through, and jumped out behind him.
As she stepped out, she knew it wasn’t quite cold enough for a fur hat. But today, she needed it. Because today, she was going to the Pines.
Mom’s voice echoed in her mind as she walked sheepishly towards the edge of town: The Pines are no place for a little girl. The Pines are no place for a little girl. Jude ignored the voice but held just a little tighter to Bear anyway.
“It’s okay, Bear. We’ll find it. It’s out there somewhere” she whispered, much more to herself than to Bear.
It was Mom’s cardinal rule: never, ever go to the Pines. It was every Hedgegrove resident’s cardinal rule. Of course, the Pines were just pine trees. It was just a deep, thick forest, nothing more or less. One might get lost… one might meet pirates… one might run into a bear… But at their core, each resident felt something more than that… a strange, inexplicable, but utterly undeniable feeling that they were not welcome there, that to leave the village might upset a kind of fragile alliance with the forest.
The people of Hedgegrove did all that they could to hold the ancient empire at bay. But every now and then, roots would pop up in the street or snake through cracks in building floors and shake foundations. Sometimes, it seemed less as though they grew over time and more like that sprouted ferociously out of the ground over night as the Hedgegrovers slept, just so that the village folk knew they were still quite at the mercy of the trees.
Jude stood at the edge of Hedgegrove and looked up at the trees which seemed to stretch all the way to the clouds. Until now, she had not noticed how far her feet had carried her. She had been too preoccupied with her mission to notice. But she stood, frozen at the edge of the Pines in the one opening in the hedge, letting the grandness wash over her.
And for the first time, she began to understand why the Hedgegrovers so deeply feared the forest. The branches were woven so tightly they appeared like clasped hands which might grab her. The forest had a silence to it which was never truly silent, peppered with the chirps of unknown birds and insects… occasional ominous growls… surely, that strange cry was just an animal and not a banshee…
Bear nuzzled closer to her and Jude patted his head in reassurance.
“We need to do this, Bear,” She said with resolve. “If it’s really out there, we need it.”
There were whispers… whispers of a pond with water that could heal any illness. And if there was any chance that the pond was real, Jude was going to find it.
There were also rumors of ominous forces and faerie life… Those few brave enough to enter the Pines, they said, never returned the same. They kept silent about their ventures. Rumors had it that… strange fates befell those who dared brave the embrace of the thickets. Odd accidents, early deaths, curious behaviors… some even said they went mad.
But those were just rumors…
And before she could hear another ominous shriek, Jude grabbed tight to Bear’s collar and tore through the first rows of thickets. The pine needles and thorns pressed into her skin, but she blazed on anyway. And when at last she found herself and Bear in a clear spot, the thickets behind her seemed entirely untouched, as though they had closed behind her.
She opened up her satchel and pulled out the knife and slipped it into her belt. Bear gave her a nervous look, but she scratched his chin.
“It’ll just make it easier to get through the thickets.” This seemed to do little to ease Bear and he nuzzled even closer to her with a little cry. Jude tried to keep confidence. But it began to dawn on her that she had no idea which direction to turn or how thick the forest was or if the pond was even real. But as she thought of the Amalia… laying in bed, pale and silent… Jude picked a direction and began walking and Bear kept alert, clearly afraid but determined not to leave Jude’s side. She needed him to be brave right now.
It’s okay, Amalia… she thought. I’ll find it… If the doctors can’t make you better, I will… I promise.