THE DISCUSSION OF ABBY, AND WENDY’S CROWS
The father-daughter talk in the garden seemed about to end, but Phoebe had one more question. “One other thing, Dad,” she said. “It’s about the garden.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“I met this girl a few days ago, someone who graduated from high school with me. She has a garden in the forest. It isn’t quite like this one, but a lot of the vegetables are the same.”
Peter’s eyes widened and he sat up straight, taking a deep breath. “You went into the forest with her? What’s her name?”
“Her name is Abby. Do you know her?”
“Is she a shy girl, tall, and sort of hunches her shoulders?” Peter was talking rapidly and imitating Abby’s posture. “She’s got black hair, wears black jeans? Her parents live over in Woodridge on the other side of the forest?”
“I’m not sure about her parents, but I know they don’t live around here. The rest is all her.”
“Then you’re talking about Abby Chapman, definitely a major player in this game, a sort of wild card.” Peter gathered his thoughts. “Goodness, Phoebe, you’re here a couple of days, and you’re into everything. But that’s good! You’ve got a knack for it. Once I heard you were coming back I knew this would happen.”
Phoebe waited quietly, knowing her father would plunge ahead with a torrent of words.
“All right, you’ve hit a spot where we need help. Abby’s a Chapman, a sort of niece of Wendy’s. She’s Wendy’s father’s brother’s son’s daughter. I know that’s a mouthful. More to the point, you should know that Abby’s grandfather helped work the apple farm in Hidden valley long ago, and was with the family when a mob burned their house and they all went into hiding.”
“What? I can’t believe I never heard of this!”
“It’s not so surprising. It happened over seventy years ago, and there are many reasons for people in this town to keep it quiet. Respectable folks usually hide major crimes in their family history, and they don’t like to be associated with the victims either. The effects of these crimes are far from over.”
Her skin shivered as she listened.
“But for now I just want you to understand Abby’s importance. She’s Wendy’s favorite, but is not part of the inner circle. Wendy’s father and brother worry about her, but keep her at a distance. They have the idea that Abby has to find a life on her own, a special mission in the outer world. Your mother and I actually live very near Wendy’s father, and we almost never see Abby. But we know she spends time with Wendy in the forest, sometimes for weeks on end.” Peter’s eyebrows made a thick wall over his troubled eyes. The vertical lines ran down the middle of his forehead.
Phoebe bit her tongue to remain silent. Just listen! Just listen! He’s telling you what you need to know.
“We’re also aware,” he said, frowning off into space, “that Abby has a boyfriend from a family involved in the Morphy clan, a family whose grandfather helped burn those houses and cabins in Hidden Valley so many years ago. Are you getting an idea what you’ve stumbled into? Do you see?”
His gaze moved quickly back to Phoebe, but she looked away. No wonder Sammy won’t buy her vegetables. And are these the people she knows who walked out of the church?
“I can see why John Chapman encouraged us to open up to you,” her father exclaimed, leaning closer. “He must have an intuition about you young people.”
Phoebe couldn’t grasp the whole picture. She felt distracted by the crows making a racket nearby. They seemed to be practically in the garden itself. Did he say Wendy’s brother? Who is that? And he said ‘John’. Could that be the same John I heard about yesterday? She was growing hot in the small garden under the bright sunlight. The air was still. A trickle of sweat ran down her temple.
Her father shook his head and sighed. “I hate to be putting a burden on your shoulders… but anything you can do to help Abby understand these dangers, anything you can do that would protect her from those who would exploit her…”
“But why would you depend on me for something like this? And I don’t quite understand what they’re after. Surely you or Wendy or Abby’s parents could do a better job!”
Peter wore his most severe face, eyebrows brought so low his eyes were mere slits. Finally he asked, “What would you suggest?”
“I don’t know!” she burst out in frustration. “You’re supposed to know!”
“I wish I did! But it’s not a problem I can solve. We’ve tried. Abby’s parents are off in another town and don’t associate with us. They pretend they’re not involved in all this. Long ago they quarreled with Wendy and will not speak to her. The parents have no control over Abby whatsoever. Wendy has far more influence than they do. But why would a young girl consent to live with her ancient aunt far from friends and community? Even an aunt as interesting as Wendy? Maybe for a short time, but… you can see how it is. Abby’s a free agent. What should we do? If persuasion hasn’t worked, should we try to intimidate her, or use force? Hmm? Those are the tactics of the people we despise.”
Phoebe had enough sense not to reply. Her father reached over to bush of rosemary again and pinched off the end of another branch. He nibbled on it, chewing slowly to calm himself down. The sharp yet soothing scent wafted over Phoebe.
“And Wendy is a wild card too,” Peter went on more softly. “I’ll speak to her again when I get the chance, but I can’t tell you how fiercely stubborn and independent she is, insisting on doing things her own strange way. She’s given Abby a lot of freedom, and shares more with her than any of us think is wise. But ultimately someone’s got to help Abby in town where her friends are.”
“But what if I mess up, or Abby does? There seems to be a lot at stake here.”
“Ah! There is. And all our efforts may fail. Why do the good thing, only to be destroyed? Why even try, when we’ll be destroyed anyway? Why risk making a mistake, when we could do nothing and deny all responsibility?”
Phoebe sighed. “All right, I get it. When you put it that way.”
“I don’t mean to belittle what you’re asking. These are questions for all of us. They come up all the time, for the oldest or the youngest.”
“But I get it. There are things only I can do.”
“I think you’re fabulous.”
Phoebe laughed. “That’s enough, Dad.”
They sat in silence, feeling happy that they’d reestablished some kind of partnership in this strange world.
“I want you to know that you can come to Hidden Valley. You’re invited. Oh, it’s clear you don’t want to visit right now, too much for your knee anyway at this point. But someday you’ll want to come. Just let us know. Chi Chi visits every couple of days. He’ll guide you to us.”
Phoebe nodded. Once again the crows were kicking up a racket.
Peter stood up, and then stepped up on the hay bale, looking toward the forest. “I’ve been wondering where those crows are. I think they’re our forest crows, King and his band. Normally we don’t see them over here.”
“Those crows have names?”
“They sure do. They’re Wendy’s favorites, her personal assistants, you could say. Yes! My goodness! Right over there! On the long branch. Look! They’re rising up.”
Raucous voices filled the air. Phoebe stood and saw at least half a dozen crows flapping their wings, rising off a long horizontal oak branch extending over the field of Christmas trees. One huge black crow spread his enormous wing feathers out against the sky and swooped directly overhead. Phoebe stood up and watched the others follow in a wide arc, and finally rise over the taller oaks and disappear back into the forest.
“Well!” said Peter with a smile. “I’ve never had a visit like that before.”
“Do they know us, or am I just imagining things?”
“They know me, and now they know you too. They’re a lot smarter than most people would think. And somehow they communicate with Wendy.”
Peter picked some squash and finger beans and tomatoes and basil, and put them in a shopping bag. “Why don’t you take these back to the house for dinner? Try to spend time with your mom. She’s there with Penny helping to prepare for your party.”