Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Whispering Ferns - Chapter One

The envelope was torn and stained, wrinkled so badly that some of the words were almost impossible to read. The postmark said South America on it, but it could have come from a different universe, or a different time. It sat in the bottom of his family's mailbox like something precious and amazing, which it was. Smith, an intelligent and gentle young man of eleven years, shouted excitedly as he saw it and gently took it from the box. Short for his age, Smith had curly black hair and wore glasses. He had a thin nose and bright eyes that changed colors with the day and his moods. Right then, Smith, whose real name was James Henson Campbell, had eyes of brightest blue reflecting his thrill over seeing the letter in the mailbox.

Smith had gotten his nickname after a series unsuccessful attempts to run away to the Smithsonian when he was a child. He had seen a program on the museum and after looking it up on a map, packed his backpack and left the apartment, planning to walk to Washington D.C. His mother caught him immediately the first time and a few weeks later, when he tried again, the doorman, Albert spotted him and followed him for a half a block before dragging him back. Since then, Smith had visited the Museum as well as the Natural History Museum in New York so many times that the docents and researchers knew him on sight. They called him by his nickname and showed him secret exhibits on floors that weren't open to the public.

The ragged looking letter was from his father. Smith rushed up the stairs to his apartment, waving the ragged envelope like a flag, as fast as his eleven year old legs could carry him. “Mom! Mom! We got a letter from Dad!” he shouted as he skidded around the corner of the hallway, bunching the old rug up against the wall. He slammed into the door of his apartment and fumbled for a minute with the key around his neck, breathing hard. Smith didn't run much and the sprint up the five stories to his home along with the thrill of the long-awaited letter had worn him out. Finally, he got the key into the lock and opened the heavy old door, it creaked loudly in protest as he threw it wide, banging it against the table in the hallway. Wincing at the noise, he shut the door much more carefully and stood up the statue of a monkey reading a book that had toppled over. “Mom!!” he shouted again, walking down the main hall of his apartment, souvenirs and photos from his parents many trips lining the walls.

Before Smith was born, his mother and father had made countless expeditions to Africa and South America, researching for their books and working with tribes to conserve the forests. Since he came along, they had both taken jobs with the university, hoping to spend more time with their son, though his father made occasional trips still.

Smith's mother, Julia Campbell, walked calmly out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel. “James Henson Campbell! How many times have I told you not to slam open that door? Your father and I raised you to be civilized!” Smith knew that she was mad because she used his real name, instead of his nickname, but he could also tell that she wasn't that mad her eyes sparkled with love and her lips showed the merest glimpse of a smile.

“Sorry mother, I was just excited. We got another letter from dad, you see and I opened the door too fast.” He put on his most innocent smile. “I made sure to close it quietly, though!”
“You're home late, it's almost six,” she said, looking at the old grandfather clock. “Did your reading group at the library run long?”

Nodding, he tossed his backpack into the hall closet and ran his hand through his hair. “Yeah, Mr. Gregory just dropped me off. We started a new book today, and some of the other kids had trouble with some of the larger words in it.”

She smiled at him and gave him a big hug. He knew that his mother would never stay mad at him for long and could see her looking eagerly at the envelope from South America too. “Should we open it?” she said, snatching it from his small hands. “It sure looks like its been through some rough weather, doesn't it?”

Smith nodded and hurried into the library off of the hall, pulling himself up onto one of the big old leather easy chairs, feet scuffing against the wood floors. Smith's father had been in South America for nearly a year, studying the effects of logging on the wildlife there, specifically the primates. He was a well respected professor and author and though he loved his work, he loved his family even more, writing to them as often as he could. They even got to fly to South America with his father when he had gone this last time and spent a week there, driving across the dusty land and sleeping in hammocks surrounded by mosquito netting. Smith had enjoyed his time there, but after a week of the heat and not being able to understand the language, he was excited to come back home to New York. His father was supposed to have returned last month, but had heard a rumor about a large group of strange monkeys living deep in the forest and he had decided to stay and try to find them. His last letter had promised that he would be home in time for Christmas, but he couldn't pass up the chance to find the mysterious beasts that lived deep in the rain forest of South America. He had written that the natives descriptions made them sound like they might be a new species of monkey, which would be quite a discovery!

Since he had left to find the new primates, Smith and his mother hadn't heard from him. His weekly letters had stopped arriving and their phone hadn't rung. Smith was starting to worry. He hadn't said anything to his mother, because he wanted to be strong and be the man in the family, but he laid awake at nights worrying about his dad. There were a lot of dangerous and scary things in the jungles and while Smith thought his dad was one of the best explorers around, he still wanted him home soon, safe and sound.

His mom cuddled next to him in the huge chair and he leaned in close to her so that he could read over her shoulder. She smelled like lemon dish soap, fresh flowers and old books and he loved to sit next to her in the library. Every night, ever since he was a baby, she would read to him in the same chair, she read him fantasies, mysteries, ghost stories, romances, anything she could get her hands on and when he got older, whatever he picked for her to read. Lately she had been having him read to her as well. His family loved books and listening to her read every night was something he always looked forward to. Never moreso than tonight, when she would read a long awaited letter from his father.

His mother slowly tore the brittle paper envelope along the fold and Smith noticed that her hands were shaking slightly. She pulled out one simple sheet of paper, thick and strong, but in bad shape, like it had been handled by many people before reaching them. It was a short letter, nothing like the four or five page letters his father usually sent.

November 10th

My Dearest Julia and Brave Little Smith,

My search for the elusive new primates spotted in the area may prove fruitful, yesterday we spotted some markings, deeper into the continent's uncharted forests than ever before. My guides say that we may be on the trail, but we will soon enter a dangerous area, full of creatures untold, wickedly sneaky diseases and unfriendly natives. I tell you this not to scare you, but to share with you some of my bravery, as I go into the depths unafraid, buoyed up by my love for you! Sadly, I do not know how long I will be gone, I've already been pursuing these creatures longer than I'd planned and I fear I will not make it home in time for Christmas, but I think that New Years Day is likely. There is a settlement about six days further in and I shall send an update to you then. I hope all is well and good luck on your upcoming spelling test, Smith. Do us proud, as always!

Love, Lawrence B. Campbell.

Emotion filled her voice and she paused for a moment. She looked over at Smith and hugged him tighter. “I love you Smith and you know your father would never leave us alone without a good reason, right?”

Smith looked up at his mom and nodded. “Of course mom, Dad is a great explorer and he'll be home soon!” Smith could tell that his mom was scared. It was December 12th, over a month since his father had written the letter and they had never taken so long to reach them before. If he had planned to write another letter a week later, they should have already received both of them. He was worried, but needed to stay in good spirits for his mom. Noticing something written on the back of the sheet, Smith turned his mother's hands so that they could see it. It was a quote;

“Curiosity Will Conquer Fear Even More Than Bravery Will.”
James Stephens
(Irish poet and storyteller, 1882 – 1950)

His father usually attached quotes to his letters, he always said that they were cluttering up his brain, so he might as well share them. Smith was especially drawn to his father's choice on this letter. Smith always tried to be brave, but sometimes it was hard and he realized that it was his father's way of telling them that his dad was scared to go deeper into the forest, but he was also curious and that love of learning made him brave enough to go. Smith missed his dad, but the quote helped him understand why his father was gone still, he just hoped that he was okay.

His mom carefully folded the letter back up and put it back in the beat up envelope. Her hands were shaking and she had a tired look in her eyes. “Hey kiddo,” she said, ruffling his thick dark hair. “Do you mind if that's our reading for the night? I'm suddenly pretty tired.”

Smith nodded and told her that it was fine. He faked a yawn and said that he was tired too and headed towards his bedroom. He wasn't actually tired, it was still a couple hours before bed time, but he knew that his mom wanted to go to bed. The letter had made her really worried. He went into his room, but after her bedroom door shut, he snuck back into the library and grabbed up an armload of books about South America, trying to find where his father was in the deep jungles. There was a thick book about the tribes of South America and he found one that had topographic maps of the forests that outlined the hills and valleys of the country. As he poured over the maps, he wasn't surprised that most of the forests were unknown; the maps had been laid over photos taken from overhead by planes and the area that his father was in showed nothing but a vast expanse of impenetrable green.

Hours later, Smith woke up. He had fallen asleep on a book, dreaming about trekking through the forest alongside his father. They were hacking at vines with machetes and fighting off snakes and cannibals. He wiped the drool from the book and gathered up the stack. He looked at the clock; it was almost two in the morning! He was shocked that he'd slept for so long. It was tempting to leave the books he had been reading on his table, but his parents had taught him how important it was to treat books with respect and to clean up after yourself, so he carefully crept back into the library, reshelving them. As he tiptoed back towards his room, he heard voices down the dark hall, coming from his mom's room. He almost went back to bed, but he was worried about his mom. Silently, he crept closer to her door trying to overhear her.

His mom was talking to his Aunt Grace in Washington about how scared she was. She said that she was afraid that Smith's father, Lawrence, was lost and that she couldn't go looking for him like last time, not with Smith to take care of. Smith wondered what she meant. Had his dad gotten lost before and his mom had gone and found him? Smith headed back to his room and thought about it while he laid in bed, his mind spinning. What if she had to go rescue his father again? Smith liked to think that he was a lot more mature than other kids his age, but he couldn't be left alone and if he went to South America, he would have to drop out of school and he wanted to become a professor like his mother and father. At the same time, Smith couldn't help but think about how cool it would be to travel to South America with his mom and rescue his father. Braving treacherous jungles and giant animals to sweep their trapped father to safety. Soon, Smith's mind was off on a great rescue mission and his thoughts turned into dreams as he fell to sleep.

The next morning, the sun was shining and everything was less scary in the daylight. Smith found his mom in the kitchen, drinking coffee and reading the morning paper. It was Saturday, so neither of them had to go to school and they usually spent the day doing the shopping and chores and the evenings were spent reading or doing homework in the cozy library. This morning, Smith could tell it was going to be different. His mom smiled at him when he walked in and offered him a glass of orange juice. She made him a bowl of cereal and sat down, looking at him seriously. His parents always treated him like an adult and Smith loved it. It made him feel important and smart. “I thought a lot about it last night, Smith, about your father.” His mother said, stirring her coffee with a tiny spoon. “I think we should wait until after Christmas, but if we still haven't heard from him, I might have to go looking for him.”

He looked at her excitedly. “Me too, right? I could help you find him!” He was excited about coming to the rescue, like in his dreams. “I can swing a machete and protect us from snakes!”
“No, Smith,” his mother frowned. “If I went to South America, we would have to find somewhere for you to stay. Wherever your father is, if he can't get to us, it could be very dangerous and I don't know how long I would be gone.”

“But I want to help!” Smith said, trying not to get upset.

“I know you do,” his mother said, holding his hand across the small breakfast table. “But the only way I could feel good about looking for your father is if I know you are safe somewhere.” She looked lovingly at him. “Do you understand?”

Smith did, but it still upset him. What if his mom got lost too? What if neither of his parents ever came back, or they forgot about him in South America? “I don't want to lose you too, mom!”

She frowned and shook her head. “You haven't lost your dad, Smith! You know that. He just hasn't written us back for a while. Maybe his letter got lost.” She folded up her paper and finished her coffee. “I'm going to do what I can for the next few days to find out what happened to him and we will talk more about it after Christmas, Okay?”

“Okay,” he said unhappily, picking at his cereal with his spoon.

“Besides, there's no point in getting too worried yet, a letter could turn up any day now!” His mother smiled and wandered out of the kitchen, picking up the phone to call someone.

But a letter didn't come. Every day, Smith would rush home from school and anxiously ask the bellman if there had been any letters from his father. Albert, the old bellman would always shake his head sadly and pat Smith on the arm. Christmas was almost upon him and all around, people were happy. They sang songs and hung lights, wrapped presents and greeted each other warmly. Smith ignored all of it. As snow fell outside his apartment, he gazed out of the window and imagined the dry ground of South America. The heat so hot that things seemed to shimmer in it and jungles so wet that your clothes could rot off of you. His mother tried to cheer him up and get him into the spirit of Christmas, but Smith would have none of it, all he wanted was his father home, safe and sound. Mrs. Campbell had tried to get more information about her husband, but every lead was a dead end. Lawrence had walked into the jungle with a crew of thirteen others and then vanished without a trace.

His mom spent a lot more time on the phone, speaking with her connections in South America, trying to track down her husband, making potential arrangements for going there herself and she talked to her sister, Smith's Aunt Grace, a lot too. He had only met his aunt twice, once when they had visited New York for a week when Smith was very young. He didn't remember much about that visit. The other time, he and his parents had visited them in Moonstone Bay, Washington, where they lived. He was in kindergarten when they visited Cannon and Grace Davidson and Smith didn't remember much about the trip.

Smith did remember his uncle being a giant, bear-sized man that bought him some little green army men at a drug store in Moonstone Bay while his parents and aunt were out running errands. Smith had just read a story about King Arthur and he spent the afternoon pretending like King Arthur was in charge of the army, leading them against his cousin's plastic dinosaur army. His parents seemed upset and tense in Smith's memory of the visit, and he remembered them being upset about his uncle buying him army toys. All of his toys back in New York were educational, never violent and they didn't want Smith to keep them. That made Smith confused, he liked the little army men and didn't understand why he couldn't have them. He remembered finding the leader, King Arthur, in his luggage when he returned home. His Uncle had snuck it into his bag with a little note that said: Don't forget to PLAY too!

Smith still had that figure and later, when his parents finally gave in and let him read some comic books and have a few non-educational toys, he made sure that the green plastic army man he'd dubbed King Arthur was always the leader. Apart from that, he didn't remember much about his cousins or their town. He remembered them as being hyper, running everywhere and making messes and they lived in a big creepy house that was always cold. All he remembered about Moonstone Bay was that it had a big green forest that ran along the back of the town and that it always rained. Smith liked that idea now that he was older. He liked to read while it was pouring outside, but when he was little it seemed like it was a horrible thing to have rain all of the time.

On Christmas morning, Smith ran into the living room, hoping and praying that his father would be waiting there, a big smile on his face, happy and healthy. Maybe with a cool new scar from his travels. He hoped that he would be home and everything would be perfect again. Instead, the room was empty. Santa had come and brought him presents, but not his father, not what he really wanted. He spent the day with his mother, playing half-heartedly with the gifts he received and staring out into the snow.

That night, as his mother sat beside him as he read a story from the new book of tall tales he got for Christmas, he stopped her and looked seriously at her face. She looked older than she used to. Her eyes were worried. He gave his mom a hug. “Mom, where will I go when you go to South America and find dad? Can I go with you?”

She smiled sadly and looked at his face, her fingers ruffling his curly hair. “No, Smith, if we decide that I should go find your father, then I will leave you with your cousins, the Davidsons, in Washington.” He started to say something and she cut him off, putting her finger on his lips. “No argument. I couldn't bear to have to worry about you and your father! I know you'll be perfectly safe with your Uncle Cannon and Aunt Grace. Besides, they have that huge library in their house that the twins never use. Someone should be reading all of those books!”

Smith didn't remember the library in his aunt's home, all he remembered was a huge, creepy house, full of weird closets and empty feeling hallways. He liked the idea of a big library full of books he hadn't read, though. “But I'll miss you so much!” He said.

“I'll miss you too, James,” she said, using his real first name instead of his nickname. He knew that she only did that when she was serious about things. “But I think that your father needs my help and you need to be somewhere that I can feel good about. I know that your Aunt and Uncle Davidson would do everything they can to keep you safe.”

Smith nodded sadly and hugged her again. “I guess that makes sense. I really want to help,” he said, sliding off of his mother's lap. “But living with Aunt and Uncle Davidson wouldn't be too bad. I guess.” He actually thought it sounded quite bad indeed. His cousins, from what he remembered, were loud and annoying and the house where they lived was creepy and filled with cobwebs and strange noises. His mother had told him that while he was living in Moonstone Bay, his Aunt Grace would home-school him, so that he could keep up with his classes in New York. Smith didn't have a lot of friends, but the neighborhood he lived in was familiar to him. He went to a big school in the city there, where they had advanced learning classes and the newest things, they even had a playground on the roof of the building.

Moonstone Bay was a tiny little fishing village, they probably didn't even have computers there. Smith really wanted to join his mother on her trip, but he also wanted her to feel sure that he was safe. He brushed his teeth and went to bed, trying to remember more about his last trip to Moonstone Bay, hoping to find something in his memories of the trip that could excite him about going back.

He couldn't remember much, just hints of things, but as Smith drifted to sleep, images came to him and he dreamed of Moonstone Bay. A very different Moonstone Bay than he had remembered while he was awake. There was water everywhere. Dripping from the sky, pooling on the ground, on leaves, soaking his clothes and hair, plastering it to his body. He was in the deep forest, with ferns and moss covered branches surrounding him. Every direction he turned, he would bump a branch and would be showered with more water. He could tell it was pouring, but the forest was so thick with leaves and branches that the rain didn't fall on him directly, it was filtered through the trees, dripping down on him in thick wet trickles.

Somewhere in the forest, someone was calling for him, whispering his name. Every time he tried to call out and answer the voice, thunder would rumble across the sky, drowning his voice out. Each blinding bolt of lightning seemed to be getting closer and closer. He started running, tripping over exposed roots and splashing through puddles, trying to reach the voice in the woods. Suddenly lightning flashed again, brighter than ever, blinding Smith as he stumbled through the thick forest undergrowth. It went dark again, but he still had a white blur in his eyes, an afterimage from the lightning. Slowly, as his vision cleared, he realized that there was still something white out there in the woods, aimlessly drifting through the trees. The shape wasn't as bright as the lightning flashes, but it still glowed gently, pulsing in the darkened forest. It was calling his name. He shouted to the white shape, chasing it. Suddenly, he tripped. He fell, his face splashing into a puddle and then, everything went dark.

Smith woke up with his mom shaking him gently. “Smith!” she helped him sit up and dabbed at his face with a towel. “Are you okay? I heard you shouting and when I came in you were soaking wet!”

Smith realized that he'd spilled his water glass in his sleep and his hair was drenched, sticking to his forehead, just like in his dream. “Yeah mom, I'm okay... I just had a bad dream, that's all.” His mother smiled gently and told him that she would fetch him some warm milk and a new nightshirt. While she was gone, Smith shivered and held his knees to his chest. He'd had nightmares before, but they had never been so scary and so real. It was like he had really been in the forest, chasing the white shape. Was it a ghost or an alien? Smith had always believed in ghosts and he had read a lot of books about both, but he had never seen either. Why was he dreaming about ghosts calling his name? His mom came back with some warm milk and new sheets for his bed. While she made his bed with the dry sheets, he changed his shirt and drank the milk. It was perfect and made him feel very sleepy and relaxed. When he fell back to sleep, he slept until morning without any bad dreams.

The next day, his mother officially decided to go and find their father after the New Years holiday if they still hadn't heard from him. Smith was sad about it, but also excited about the idea of his mom finding his father in South America. She was planning to go with their family friend, Mr. Perdus, who was a giant of a man, nearly seven feet tall. He had a deep voice and skin as black as night and had hunted or photographed animals in every continent of the world. Mr. Perdus spoke twelve languages and could hold his breath for four minutes. He also collected clown figurines, which Smith found to be a very odd thing. Once, when he had asked Mr. Perdus about the clowns, he had laughed his loud booming laugh and said, “Why Mr. James Campbell, in order to conquer one's fear, one must face it!” Smith had never understood that. Was Mr. Perdus afraid of clowns? How could someone as large and brave as he was, be afraid of something funny?

He was very glad that Mr. Perdus was going with his mother to South America. If anyone could protect his mother and find his dad, it was their friend. He had already gone ahead to South America to start planning the search and assembling their crew. Smith's mother had called his aunt and asked her if Smith could stay with them for a month or two while she was gone. Of course, his aunt was happy to have him. Their house was huge and she said that his cousins would love to have someone to play with.

Smith was starting to get excited about going, but also really nervous. Every day, he packed and unpacked his bag, trying to decide exactly what to bring with him to Washington. He knew it was warmer there than in New York, but not by much and it rained a lot. Eventually, he had decided that he had packed the perfect bag for a trip to Washington. He zipped it up, slipping in King Arthur just before he sealed it with his luggage tags and set it in the corner of his room, waiting for when he would leave his apartment for Moonstone Bay and his mom would leave for South America to find his father.

Finally, it was time to leave for the airport. They still had received no word from his father and Mr. Perdus had not been able to track him down yet, though there were rumors of a white man deep within the rain forests. His mother would drive him to the airport, where Smith would then fly by himself to Seattle, Washington, which was the biggest city close to Moonstone Bay. In Seattle, his aunt and uncle would meet him and drive him to the small town where he would spend the next couple of months.

That night, he dreamt about the white figure in the forest again. He ran and ran after it, but it was always just far enough away that he couldn't catch it. He kept hearing his name, echoing around him in the woods, surrounded by thick ferns. He woke up in his bed, soaked with sweat. Luckily, he didn't spill his water, but this time he couldn't fall back to sleep. He spent the rest of the night reading and re-reading his father's letters in the library, until his eyes felt heavy and he fell asleep in the big leather chair.