There were a lot of things I didn’t understand about Great-aunt Maeve when I was growing up. For one thing, although she and my father insisted that we call her Maeve Reynolds, that wasn’t her real name. We’d seen that name, Adela Madden, on the book she’d written, Ivory Apples, which had been published a long time before I was born.
My sisters and I asked my father Philip about this, of course, but all he told us was that she valued her privacy, and that we weren’t supposed to give away her real name to anyone. For a while I thought Maeve was some kind of secret agent, hiding out from people who wanted to kill her, and whenever we went to visit her I’d look for proof of this theory. I never found anything, though.
We usually saw Maeve about once a month. My three sisters and I would pile into our ancient VW station wagon, and after the usual fights over who got the front seat we would drive to the post office, where Philip picked up her mail. The letters and packages were all addressed to Adela Madden, and I wondered why other people got to use her real name when her own family had to call her something else. This was one mystery Philip could clear up, though: the letters were from fans of her novel, and they knew her only by the name on her book.
Then we’d take the twisting highway out of Eugene, Oregon, which was where we lived. The houses grew farther and farther apart, and trees crowded up to the road as if to watch us go by. Sometimes Philip would swing out into the oncoming lane to pass the car in front of him, and I’d hold my breath until we returned to our lane.
After a long drive we’d take the exit at a small town. The town flashed by as we passed: a restaurant, a gas station, a single stoplight. And then another branching off and another road, this one smaller and filled with potholes. We were driving through trees now, the only car within miles, and we would tell stories about how the world had ended and we were the only people left, until the stories scared us too much to keep going.
It took an hour or two to reach Maeve’s house. I know this sounds imprecise, and I have to admit that back then I never really noticed my surroundings much -- except for those times when Philip tempted death in the other lane, of course. Instead my sisters and I talked or argued, pinched each other surreptitiously, sang or played games.
This time I’m talking about, the visit that changed everything for me, it was 1999, and I was eleven years old. After me came my younger sisters in steps of two years, Beatriz, Amaranth, and Semiramis. (My mother had disliked her own name, Jane, and had chosen increasingly florid names for us. She had even started to regret naming me Ivy, which she said was becoming too popular.) Semiramis’s birth had been difficult, and Jane had died a few months later.
Philip did his best with us. He taught engineering at the U of Oregon and spent a lot of time with his students and colleagues or writing for journals, so we had a housekeeper, Esperanza, come in to cook our meals and clean up. On the weekends when he wasn’t too busy he’d try to do things with us, or take us to interesting places. Still, we grew up fairly wild, and with little idea of how girls, much less women, were supposed to behave.
As we pulled into Maeve’s dirt driveway we could see her outside, working in the garden. We spilled out of the car, delighted with our freedom after being caged up together.
We didn’t run toward her, or hug her. We never did. There was a formality to her, a distance, that seemed to forbid it. “Hi, Aunt Maeve,” we called out.
She stood up and brushed her hands on her skirt. She was tall and heavy, with most of the weight around her middle and thighs. Her hair was thick, a wiry gray, and she wore it brushed back from her forehead. Her face reminded me of a stone, rough and open. She wasn’t as ugly as this makes her sound, though; something about her gave her the presence of a queen, or a goddess. I saw a Greek statue once that looked like her.
She headed toward us. She went with a bobbing clumsiness, like I imagined the Little Mermaid would when she first tried to walk on land. “I moved this stone over here, but it doesn’t seem very happy in its new spot,” she said to Philip. “They’re very conservative, don’t you find, stones.”
She made a lot of comments like that, said a lot of things Philip didn’t understand. His way of dealing with it was to change the subject. Maeve was really my mother Jane’s aunt, someone Philip had inherited after Jane had died, and though he tried to treat her politely his frustration would sometimes show.
“Well, we made it,” he said. “I brought your letters.”
“Oh,” she said. “Letters.”
People from all over the world wrote her letters but for some reason she disliked reading them, and Jane had taken over her correspondence. The job had grown until most of the fans got an answer, if only just a form letter, and then when Jane died Philip had taken over.
I’d watched them go through the mail once, and it had been so boring I’d never done it again. She got checks from publishers around the world, what seemed to me like a lot of money, and she would sign them for Philip to deposit later. A producer had written, wanting to make a movie of her book, but she tossed his letter in the trash, much to my disappointment.
Most of it, as I said, was fan mail. Some of the letter-writers told her how much they liked her book; some sent her presents; some asked questions. She and Philip decided which ones needed replies, and then Philip would make some notes and answer them when he got home. Some had theories about the world she had created, and these she would set firmly in the pile that got a form letter.
A few times Philip asked about something the letter-writer raised, but she would just shake her head and smile with her lips closed, as if opening them would let all her secrets come flying out. “I like to keep things mysterious,” she’d say.
The day that I’d watched them, Philip had tried to get her to use email, and to take a look at a website someone had created for her. She was too old to learn to use a computer, she’d said, and Philip had sighed quietly. I don’t think she realized how much work she made for him.
“You kids want to wander around a bit?” he asked us now. “Just stay together and don’t go too far, okay? And keep away from the river.”
I left them opening letters and packages in the dining room. It was only in the last year that Philip had allowed us to go outside; before that we’d had to do all our exploring indoors. The house was made out of wood and glass -- really more glass than wood, with enormous windows surrounded by walls weathered like driftwood. It was crowded with all manner of things, most of them presents from her fans, candles and vases and plants, stones and shells and masks and figurines. Paintings of scenes from her book lined some of the walls, and the rest were filled with bookshelves, and with stacks of different kinds of boxes, carved wood, painted tin, old orange crates from California with pictures of bright yellow suns.
Despite all this we had grown tired of staying in the house, and the woods outside seemed to beckon us. They started at the backyard and stretched out for miles; a creek ran through them, and there were open meadows where you could sometimes see deer.
I was the oldest, and my sisters were used to following wherever I led them. As I moved into adolescence, though, I wanted more and more to strike out on my own, away from my sisters. Now I imagined Beatriz piercing the silence of the wood with her chatter, and Amaranth hurrying ahead, impatient for a destination. Semiramis just looked at me, smiling, but even that seemed an invasion of my privacy.
I told them firmly to go away, but Amaranth still followed me a ways into the wood. “I told you, Rantha, I don’t want to look after a bunch of babies,” I said, and she finally left me.
I did feel a glimmer of guilt as I went on. I knew that at nine years old Beatriz was too young to look after the other two, and that although Philip was pretty relaxed with us he would be angry at what I had done. But the feeling of freedom was so intoxicating that I shrugged off my guilt and went farther in.
The trees here seemed sized for me, not too tall or too close. It was late summer, and some of the leaves had already changed color or dropped to the forest floor. A pale watery sun sieved through the branches, lighting some places and leaving others in shadow. I passed familiar landmarks, a mossy stump, a fallen tree with other trees sprouting from it. Birds sang in the distance.
I was thinking about my mother, something I’d been doing a lot lately. Jane had died five years ago, and Amaranth and Semiramis, who were seven and five now, didn’t remember her. Even Beatriz had forgotten some things -- and, most terrible of all, my own memories were starting to fade. I felt as if, once the last remembrance of her was gone, her time on earth would be erased, wiped out as if she had never existed.
I missed her dreadfully, and her absence seemed to take on more weight as I got older. This year I had gotten my first period, and Philip had tried to help me but had gone mute with embarrassment. And I knew there was more waiting for me, other things outside of his experience: makeup, high heels, boys. And sex, a word that seemed tinged in red whenever I thought of it.
I had started thinking about words that year, and I wondered if there were words or phrases to capture this feeling of loss. I turned over words like coins -- “sorrow,” “desolate” -- but none of them seemed to fit. Well, maybe I’d find something later, in one of the books I was always reading.
I stopped. The woods around me had grown dim and the trees seemed different, crowds of thick tall pines, their branches blocking the sun. It looked like another forest entirely, older, shaggier, wilder. And it had grown silent, all the birds hushed now.
I felt a spark of terror and began to hurry, trying to find my way out. Trees crowded around me, looming like giants, closing off the paths I tried. Branches caught at my clothes. The air turned cold and sharp and tasted like iron. Things moved at the edge of my vision, as if herding me somewhere. The woods grew darker.
Finally I saw a stream running across my path, so narrow that one step would take me across it. I left the path and followed it deeper into the wood, thinking that it would lead to the creek. The woods still looked strange, though, and the stream never joined up with anything, just ran silently through its bed of mud and moss and stones.
It disappeared several times in the gloomy light, and I had to stop to look for it. The air grew colder, shivery. I heard splashing up ahead, and I ran toward it.
The woods opened out, and in the sudden light I saw a lake. Giant mossy rocks stood on the opposite bank, one piled atop the other, and a waterfall cascaded down them. A great forest stretched out in the distance, a forest I’d never seen or heard of before, and a mist lay over the tops of the trees, turning the leaves gray and the trunks the color of bone. More trees lined the shore, nodding to their reflections in the water; they had leaves of red and gold, the fiery colors of autumn, though it was still summer, as I said, and the leaves near Aunt Maeve’s house were mostly green.
And there were people, laughing and sliding down the rocks or scattering through the gusts of leaves. They had pointed ears, and fingers and toes as long and gnarled as twigs, and their hair, brown with a greenish tinge, was tangled with leaves and flowers and berries. Their eyes were longer than other people’s, green or black or gray, and seemed lit from within by gleeful mischief. They were tall and short, though none larger than a child, pale and dark, some of them beautiful and some with strangely exaggerated features -- a wide mouth, a nose like a potato. They dressed in rags of rust and red and green, or gossamer shawls that trailed them like wings. Someone was playing a set of pipes, and someone else tossed circlets of flowers, which the others caught and set in their hair.
And lying in the lake, naked and completely at ease in the water, was my great-aunt.
“What -- ?” I said.
She looked up. “Ivy, no! Get back to the house! Go!”
“What is this place?”
“Please, just go back. I’ll explain later.”
The children stopped what they were doing and came toward me, their wide mouths open in laughter. The music turned jagged, discordant. “Now! Hurry!” Maeve said.
I became aware of her urgency, finally, and turned to go. Someone slammed against my back. Then he pushed his way farther, through me, into me. I felt him turn and insinuate himself inside me, his sharp fingers pressing up against my breastbone.
Maeve said something, but I couldn’t hear her. A high, crazed hilarity had taken hold of me, like champagne bubbles rising through my body. All my senses seemed heightened, as if I had never truly experienced the world before. The red leaves blazed, the air tasted like fresh apples, the music was intricate and full of subtle changes. I wanted to laugh, to grab a flute and play it, to slide down the rocks into the lake.
“Oh, Ivy,” Maeve said. Her voice was low and beautiful, the words like the beginning of a song. I turned to her, dazzled.
I struggled to ask questions, to hear myself over what sounded like everything in the woods singing at once. “What -- what’s happening?”
The creature turned and nestled more comfortably within me. How did he fit there? Most of the others I’d seen had come up to my chin.
He was urging me back to Aunt Maeve’s house. Without thinking I went toward the path.
I made an effort to stop, to look back at Maeve. She must have seen my anxious confusion, because she called out to me. “Try to keep him at bay, especially at first. But also pay attention, and choose wisely.”
“But -- what is he?” I asked. And was he male, as I’d been thinking of him? But I felt certain he was.
The creature’s pull grew stronger. Finally I stopped fighting and headed along the path. Maeve called something behind me, but I couldn’t hear her.
Well, why not do what he wanted, after all? For one thing, he knew the way back and I didn’t. But for another, the excitement he’d brought was still fizzing through me. I knew Maeve was right, that I should fight him, but just then it seemed too difficult. Everything around me was opening up, calling to me, overwhelming me with new sights, sounds, sensations.
I stopped often as we walked through the woods, looking at a flower or up at the sky. A beetle crawled up a tree trunk, and I lost myself for a long time in thinking about its life, its purpose, all its varied and intricate connections within the forest.
We emerged from the woods at dusk. A light shone at the back window of Maeve’s house, but the rest was in darkness. Fear broke through my enchantment finally, and I remembered forcing my sisters away. Had Beatriz gotten lost, was Philip waiting in terror, wondering what had happened to us?
I hurried inside. They were all there except Maeve, talking together in the kitchen. “-- give her more time before we call the police,” Philip was saying.
“Give who more time?” I asked. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity, the idea of calling the police while I was right there in front of him. At the same time, though, I knew I had to clamp down on my giddiness, the sense that I was held to earth by the lightest of tethers.
“Where the hell have you been?” Philip asked.
“Just in the woods,” I said.
“Didn’t I tell you to stay close to the house?”
“I did stay close.” The lie took me by surprise, as if it had come from outside me.
“Then why the hell are you back so late?”
“I lost track of time.” Then, belatedly, I thought to say, “I’m sorry.”
“Beatriz says you left them.” Next to him Beatriz smiled smugly. “Didn’t I tell you to stay together? Who knows what could have happened?”
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Philip. He still thought that his logic worked, that he could list my misdeeds and I would understand what I had done wrong. He didn’t realize that he was up against something irrational, something that made a mockery of all his rules.
“Nothing happened, though,” I said. Then, urged on by my newfound sense of mischief, I said, “I saw Aunt Maeve in the woods.”
“Never mind that,” he said. “You know Beatriz isn’t old enough to look after the others.”
“She was swimming in a lake. And she was naked.”
“What?” Beatriz said. “Aunt Maeve? What did she look like?”
“Like Aunt Maeve, but without her clothes on.”
“That’s it,” Philip said. He rarely got mad at us, but when he did he made up for months of even temper. “You’re grounded for a week. No, two weeks. You think you can leave your sisters behind, and come in here late and -- and with your clothes all torn, and make up ridiculous stories about your aunt --”
This seemed terribly unfair. After all, he hadn’t gotten angry at the things I really had made up. “I did see her.”
“I don’t want to hear about it. We’re leaving. Now.”
“Aren’t we going to wait for her? What about dinner?”
“Now. Let’s go.”
We went out to the car and drove off. I planned to sulk conspicuously all the way home, but to my surprise my resentment was fading. Instead I felt astonished all over again by the world, by the stars lighting up the sky, the hook of the crescent moon, the hiss of the wheels on the road.
For the first time I wondered what would happen if this feeling never went away. The creature had already gotten me in trouble, and that was over something fairly minor. I could feel his sharp-edged knees pushing against my ribcage, sense him chafing against his boundaries, urging me to let his chaos loose into the world.
I hadn’t been good enough to merit the front seat; instead I was sitting directly behind Philip. Suddenly I saw myself taking the wheel and wrenching it around, hurtling the car out into the oncoming lane.
I felt a shiver of excitement, imagining the carnage. The next instant my excitement changed to horror. How could I even think such a thing? But this wasn’t me; it was the promptings of the thing inside me. Wasn’t it?
Aunt Maeve was right -- I had to keep him at bay. I tried holding my breath or breathing deeply, tensing and loosening my muscles, but he continued to blaze up though my awareness, laughing silently.
Finally I found a way to block him. I had to ignore him -- or not ignore him so much as think around him, understand that he was there but not feed him with attention. It was easy, in a way, but hard too, because I longed for that intoxication again, the way he’d changed everything, remade the world into something bright and fresh and new. I kept wanting to reach for him, to feel that wild excitement coursing through me.
“You’re very quiet back there, Ivy,” Philip said. “I hope you’re thinking about what you did, how dangerous it was.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Beatriz giggled, thinking I was being sarcastic. I meant it, though. It was dangerous as hell, I understood that now.