PHOEBE AND ABBY
Phoebe came toward Abby, stepping around the brush and young trees. “I was looking for you,” she called. Abby nodded, and led the way down the slope through the undergrowth to a small clearing near a grove of birch trees at the edge of the thick shadows of the forest. A stream murmured a few yards away. A tiny fire gave off a wisp of smoke. A weathered old coffee table and a stool, and a hammock hung between two trees, completed the homey scene.
“I can make you some tea,” Abby said.
“That would be nice.” Phoebe glanced about her, uncertain where to sit.
“Go ahead and take the stool. It’s usually just me, so we’re short on chairs.”
Abby built up the fire with a handful of sticks, and set a pot half-full of water on a hot stone in midst of the flames. She poured a dark mixture from a small beg into a strainer, and set it over a cup so large it looked like a bowl with a handle.
“I’ve had mine already,” said Abby. “You take this. You’ll like it.” She poured the scalding water through the strainer into the cup, making a thick brown liquid, and soon handed the cup to Phoebe and sat near her on the ground.
The stream murmured. Phoebe blew on her tea, and waited, but Abby didn’t speak. Birds chattered near by.
Finally Abby said, “Keep this a secret, okay? Don’t tell anyone I live here. I don’t want to be bothered.”
“But you can come here.”
“I’ll come alone.” She sipped her tea. “This is better than coffee.” Phoebe stared into the forest and puzzled over Abby. What is she doing out here? I’m just going to have to get up the nerve to ask questions.
She directed her gaze back to Abby. “You mentioned something about a job when we were at Glenda’s the other day. Any luck with that?”
“Oh – I sort of have a job, sometimes. I’m a gardener, but mostly I just make a mess of things. Nothing ever works out.”
“Really? How come?”
Abby shrugged, making it clear the subject was off limits. Phoebe began to grow frustrated. If she can be cold, I can be nosey.
“So if you’re a gardener, you must have a garden. How do you get by out here?”
Abby looked surprised, but instead of taking offense she grew more eager to talk. “I get along. I have for a long time. But it’s no solution. I still want a job and a place to live, a place in town where I can be normal.”
“What’s holding you back?”
Abby rose up on one knee and slid closer. “Maybe we can help each other, if you’re careful enough.”
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere, thought Phoebe. She looked steadily at Abby and said, “I can be careful.”
“Do you really mean that? Even if you’re not sure why? Because you’re not going to find out everything all at once. There’s a lot to learn. And it’s more serious than you know. Much more serious. You’ll have to take it on faith from me.”
“I’ll do it,” said Phoebe. “You can trust me.”
“I’ll take a risk for you. Don’t let this turn out to be a mistake.” Abby’s tone bordered on threatening, but then she softened her face and gave Phoebe a look that might have been a smile. Then she rose and quickly dismantled her outdoor room, hiding her few things under nearby raspberry bushes. She poured water on the fire and covered it with a flat rock.
“Okay,” said Abby. “Never take the path I’ll show you unless you’re with me. And never mention where we’re going to anyone.” She set off across the stream and turned left through the pine trees on rising ground. She waited for a moment silently, observing the way they had come. Then, apparently satisfied, she moved quickly into the forest.
Phoebe struggled to keep up. She had no idea where they were going and never could have found it again. They walked over springy brown pine needles that left no trace of a footprint. Occasionally they had to crawl under thick branches of thickets of mountain laure. Her knee began to ache. Eventually Phoebe caught glimpses of sky and the stunning Half Moon Cliffs through the pine trees. Sliding through interlaced branches, they reached a barrier of thorny brush and vines.
“Watch out for these vines,” Abby warned. “Poison ivy.”
Abby got down almost on her belly, and crawled through a low tunnel under overgrown brambles, sliding branches to side along the way. Phoebe followed. The thorns scratched her arms and dug into her back. When she could stand she found herself on a little peninsula of land jutting out over the swamp that lay between them and the sheer rocky sides of the Half Moon Cliffs. The view was extraordinary.
Abby noticed Phoebe’s astonishment, and smiled. “I guess you’ve never seen it like this before,” she said. “And you thought you knew this part of the world.”
Phoebe took a deep breath. “It’s like a castle!”
Abby led the way around this small piece of land sealed off by the wall of thorns and vines. Phoebe began to notice paths, and vegetables that grew up on grids make of branches. Soon she recognized tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers. Green and yellow and tan squashes peaked out from under enormous leaves covering the ground. Pole beans grew up stalks of corn. The sun above the cliffs blazed down on this secret refuge.
Abby stopped by a row of vines with small yellow star-shaped flowers growing up a grid of branches, and broke off two long shiny green cucumbers. She rolled the vegetables in her hands, and then opened a long jack-knife and cut off the tops. The knife seemed to appear from nowhere.
“Have you tried one of these? They’ll quench your thirst.”
“Glenda gave me one of them. I like them.” Phoebe squeezed the green skin and drank the warm liquid.
They walked back toward the wall of brambles, and there amid rows of low green vines growing on small mounds, was a beautiful tree with long shiny green leaves. Many very strange yellow and purplish pods with long grooves grew from the trunk and branches. It was not tall, but there was something royal about the tree. It sat enthroned there among its subjects.
“So…” Phoebe began, “I’ve never see a tree like that before.”
“We call it a northern cacao. It’s a cacao tree that will grow here, in this climate. The beans in these pods – with a certain kind of peppermint – make the tea you drank earlier.”
Abby volunteered no more information, and finally Phoebe said, “Well, I do see that a tree like this would be worth a lot of money.”
“Oh yes,” Abby replied. “But I would never sell it to anyone. It’s too rare a secret and not mine to share. But I would like to make a little money off the finger beans and squashes and cucumbers and apples. And there are other things, more than you dream of.”
“So how did you get one of these cacao trees? And who taught you all this?”
Abby shot her a look of disappointment and shook her head.
Phoebe gritted her teeth. “But you were saying you wanted to make some money.”
“Yeah. I’ve been working on it. Scutter wants to sell squashes and finger beans in the big market. And he’s asking for lemon cukes, though I haven’t shown him any.”
Phoebe raised her eyebrows at the mention of Scutter, and then noticed Abby looking at her out of the corner of her eye, taking in her reaction.
Is she serious? How could she think of working with Scutter? Or am I totally mistaken?
“You’ve got to be careful with Scutter. Do not trust him.”
“He’s actually a polite man," returned Abby. "He likes me.”
“But he’s not all by himself. Other people own and control that store. The money came from someplace.”
“But it never comes to me. When do I get some? Sammy sells these vegetables, and anyone can grow them from seed. Why can’t I sell them too?”
“Well, why don’t you? Go ahead and sell them at Sammy’s.”
“He won’t buy from me. None of them will do anything with me.”
“Really?” Phoebe hesitated, failing to hide the doubt in her eyes.
“But it’s true. They don’t trust me.”
What am I missing? What reason could Sammy have for refusing? “I know you understand all this much better than I do,” said Phoebe. “But you’re the one who said we need to be careful. Let me help you. Let’s make a pact that… I don’t know… we’ll figure this out together.”
Abby’s face softened. “I hope you can. I’m having a really hard time. You don’t know how hard it is.” She paused, and gave Phoebe a shy, questioning look. “I’ve been thinking. It’s why I brought you out here…”
Phoebe waited in suspense, biting her tongue.
“At Glenda’s when you said we could form a team to help Reverend Tuck, I thought you might be serious.”
“I am serious,” replied Phoebe. “I just don’t know what to do.”
“Reverend Tuck really does need help. And so do the rest of us. I know there are people who want to get rid of him, fire him, throw him out.”
“Why do they want to get rid of him?”
“Because they don’t agree with his beliefs. They think he’s in the way. They don’t like to be told no. Lots of reasons. I think you might be caught up in all this too, and don’t realize it yet. I’m more than caught up in it, I’m trapped in it.”
“You’ll have to slow down, I’m not following you. Is this about climate change, or something totally different?”
“Both. Reverend Tuck’s going to need help, and I am too. And so are you.”