The Sacred Grove

May 20, 2008
By Margaret Noah, Nashville, TN

Abby Redford was a little bit famous in the small Georgia town of Putama. Even at the tender age of eleven, she had already carved her name in the record book with the world’s shortest attention span, so you would think that her dear, dear friends would remember not to be late for one of their adventures. But there she sat on her front porch step, waiting for her supposed friends, who were supposedly going to have shown up a whole four and nearly a half minutes ago. She had spent the whole morning in a miserable, itchy, not to mention ugly dress, sitting politely in church, legs crossed at the ankle. By 1:04 pm, her life hadn’t gotten much better. She had managed to ditch the dress for a t-shirt, shorts, and her beloved pair of sneakers, but now she sat on a hard, wooden, and not to mention splintered porch, knees tucked under the chin.
For the seventh time that minute, she raised her eyes from the dirty patterns on her sneakers to search desperately for her friends. They had agreed to meet at precisely 1:00, the exact time they had met every Sunday afternoon since 3rd grade. But of course, they had to pick today to be late: the day of their greatest adventure, they day they would go to the Sacred Grove… hopefully.
But, just as her frustration was about to break into full out pacing, she caught sight of the strawberry curls of Mark McGovern, stumbling his way through the neighbor’s flowerbed. Behind him was Savannah Carvel with her long black hair in the same two braids it had been in since… well, forever. Abby was about to relax and forgive her friends for their tardiness, until she saw what – or rather who – Savannah was dragging. Josh and Jacob Carvel, the notoriously twisted twins, were reluctantly being pulled from the sound of the neighbor’s poor little doberman’s frantic howls, no doubt wishing they could finish what that they had started on Wednesday when Savannah was babysitting. They were only seven years old, but they had already been banned from the Putama City Pool for sticking a frog down a girl’s swimsuit (Savannah had been babysitting then too, coincidentally).
“I cannot believe you brought them!” spat Abby as soon as they were close enough to hear.
“But come on, Abby” Mark defended, being as Savannah had her hands full, “Mrs. Carvel said we had to take them. We can’t say no to her!”
Of course he was right, but Abby didn’t like it when he was right, so she continued. “This is one of the most important days of our entire lives; of course you could have said no to her. I say no to my parents all the time.”
Savannah successfully threw both boys into a pile at her feet and panted a reply. “But Abby, they gotta come, or else that means I can’t come. You ain’t gonna say I can’t come are you?”
“Well I have a mind to,” said Abby, suddenly getting that rush of power Savannah always gave her. “This is the day that I prove Mark McGovern wrong once and for all, and I sure don’t want those two devils ruining it. It’s only supposed to be for older kids anyhows.”
“Now that ain’t funny, you know” said Mark practically. “We’ll have our proof all the same whether they’re with us or not. You shouldn’t have any right to say who can and can’t go either. It’s two against one, we win.”
Knowing her argument was over, Abby pulled up her last bit of dignity to take control again. “All right, I agree. Come on, I’m leading the way, since it’s my Daddy who told me all about it.”
They set off in their usual formation, with Abby in the lead, Mark following a few steps behind, and Savannah with her brothers bringing up the rear. Every now and then, they would have to stop and reassert authority on the boys, but before long they had made into the Putama City Park. The children had spent nearly every summer day in this park since the Carvels had moved here from Atlanta the summer before the third grade. They all knew the path to climbing every individual tree, they had each broken one of their bones in this park, and they even had first dibs on the least squeaky tire swing. But today was particularly special because today, they were going beyond the City Park. At the back of the “kiddy playground” there was a fence bordering a rather thick forest. Through those trees and past the older kids’ clearing was the location of the Sacred Grove, a place so magical, no one was allowed to be brought there. Tradition stated that should anyone ever want into the hallowed clearing, she must find her own way to it.
Abby had spent her whole life hearing all about the magic of the Grove. Her father was something of an expert on the subject, and Abby was not the least bit ashamed to brag about all the glorious stories she had been told. She would pass the stories on to her friends and watch Savannah’s eyes grow as big as the fruit that hung from the trees all year long in the Sacred Grove. Apples, pears, oranges, and Georgia peaches, all as big as a head, never rotted in this magical place. The stream would sparkle whether the sun was out or not, and the birds would sing the most beautiful songs, praising the glory of the Grove. Some said it was God’s own special garden. Some said it was another Garden of Eden. But Abby’s Dad said that it was the only place on Earth where no sin had ever been committed, and so it was blessed beyond any other land in the entire world. Savannah and Abby both liked this explanation the best, though they still liked to imagine other stories, usually involving a young princess in love.
Savannah’s parent’s had also been introduced to the Sacred Grove when they had moved here. They had told their children a little about it, but their stories always lacked the magic that the Abby gave to hers. Mark, on the other hand, thought the stories were nonsense. His parents had been to the Grove, he said, and all they saw was a bunch of really old trees.
And so, after three weeks of planning, they were finally off to determine who was right. Most of the planning had actually consisted of heated arguments between Abby and Mark on whether or not the trip was even worth it. Mark was too practical for “silly, girly, magic” as he put it, but Abby said he was just a “snot-nosed, cry-baby, chicken” who didn’t want to be proved wrong. Savannah had said that they were both being stupid, but she wasn’t ever really listened to, and there wasn’t much point in starting then.
Unfortunately, the fight seemed to be heading mostly in Marks favor as of lately. The children had made it easily over the fence and the first few hundred yards of trees weren’t too terrible. But now they found themselves deep within a thicket of briars and thorns, and everyone was ready to complain.
“I don’t see why there can’t be a magical path to the magical Grove,” whined Mark.
“Because, silly, if anyone could just get there, it wouldn’t be worth anything, now would it?”
“Well can we at least take a break?” he tried again.
“No, silly, we won’t have enough time to see all the birds and eat all the fruit and play in the stream if we stop now.”
“Well, can’t we –"
“HELP!” yelled Savannah before Mark could finish. The other two quickly turned to see Savannah kneeled down towards one of the boys – Josh maybe – who had apparently stubbed his toe and was now wailing miserably. The other was gone in a flash.
“Come back here you little devil!” called Abby uselessly. She and Mark exchanged a quick glance before dashing after him into a particularly nasty briar bush. They didn’t have to go far luckily, as Jacob had stopped only a few yards further on to nurse his wounded arm.
“You sure better be happy that’s your arm that’s bleeding,” said Mark, “’cuz if that was your leg, we’d probably just leave you here for the monsters to get ya.” This seemed to have a sobering effect on the young boy, and they didn’t have too much trouble getting him back to his siblings. Once back with Savannah, they found her already on her feet, brother hanging on her back, ready to go.
“Well, what are ya’ll waiting for, this boy ain’t light you know.”
They set off again at a quick pace so that Savannah didn’t have to carry Josh for too long. Occasionally, Mark and Abby would offer to take him for a while, but she would always refuse, saying that it was her job as big sis. But suddenly, after about ten minutes of traveling, Savannah stopped in the middle of a small clearing. Abby turned around to see if everything was all right only to find a dumbstruck look on her best friend’s face. Even more shocking was that both of the Carvel brothers were standing just as still with mouths open wide, staring at their surroundings.
“O… Oh my… it’s… it’s beautiful.”
Mark looked at Abby with a confused look on his face, but she was just as puzzled as anyone was. She took a quick glance at her surroundings to see if she was missing something. There were tall oak trees that looked about as old as all the other tall oak trees that they had passed. There was what appeared to be a rotting apple tree with either maggots or some other kind of disgusting insect crawling out of it and a couple of snake holes underneath it. In the sky, she could see a few black birds flying across the small opening where sunlight shined through upon a dying stream that looked more brown than blue. It was ultimately the most unremarkable place she had ever been.
Suddenly, both of the boys took off and seemed to be everywhere at once. They were dancing and jumping and climbing the rotted apple tree like two identical blurs of black hair. Savannah began laughing and grabbed Abby by both hands, laughing and skipping around her.
“O Abby, it’s everything you said it would be and more!” she cried.
“O… o… ya, it’s pretty cool, huh?” said Abby, still completely baffled. She turned to Mark and whispered, “This isn’t the Sacred Grove, it’s just a boring clearing in the woods. What’s wrong with her?”
“I dunno, Abby. Maybe this is the Sacred Grove. I mean, we have been walking a while.”
“But that’s ridiculous, I told you all about the Grove: The stream, the trees, the fruit, the birds. This is NOT the Sacred Grove.”
“Well, did you ever think maybe your expectations were too high?” tried Mark a little timidly.
Abby did not like the sound of that at all. Of course she had had high expectations because her daddy had told her about the Sacred Grove for as long as she could remember. Her daddy did not lie… ever. He wasn’t even the kind of dad who likes to play jokes on his kids. If he said that the Sacred Grove was special, then the Sacred Grove was special. It was as solid as science in Abby’s eyes. So then, why didn’t she see it?
After all, if anyone should be able to see the magic, it really ought to be her. She was the leader of the group. She was the one who took them here; she had led them through the thorns and briars only to be left at the gates of the Promised Land! Why was Savannah - silly, immature, soft-spoken - Savannah the one enjoying her paradise, while she watched completely confused on the side? It didn’t even make sense.
She sat beneath one of the oaks and watched as Savannah and her brothers began climbing the largest of the oaks. She considered warning them about the hornet’s nest hanging on one of the branches, but decided that they could figure it out on their own. It probably wouldn’t be able to dampen their spirits anyway. She wished that she could be them. She had never wanted anything that Savannah had before. Abby was three months older, Abby was much smarter, Abby won every game. But Savannah could see the Sacred Grove, and that mattered so much more than anything else ever would. Maybe it was just the drama queen, but something in Abby told her that she would never be able to see what Savannah saw, no matter how hard she looked. She would always see the rotted old tree trunks where her friend saw heaven.
Mark came and sat next to her, wrapping his arm around his friend.
“Maybe we’re just too old to see magic.” He tried. “I mean, I used to see monsters in my closet, but I grew out of it.”
“Then how come my parents come here, and Savannah’s parents, and lots of kids’ parents. They all come here, they all see it.”
“Well my parents don’t see anything.”
“But it must be here!” yelled Abby as tears began to stream down her cheeks. “They all see it, and we’re just messed up or something! That’s the only way to explain it!”
Mark was quiet. He had a special connection with Abby, and he understood when it was unwise to speak. After a few moments of silence, she laid her head on her friend’s shoulder, enjoying the warmth of love. Savannah was distracted by her own joy and seemed unaware that her two friends were left out. But she would realize soon enough, Abby reasoned. In the meantime, she tried to enjoy the quiet understanding she now had with her other friend.
“It’s not such a bad place, ya know,” said Mark after a while. “I mean, it ain’t the playground or nothin’, but I like it all right.”
“I think I’d rather play at the park from now on, though,” answered Abby.
“Savannah will be wanting to play here…”
“But you’ll play with me, won’t you? And we’ll see Savannah at school.” She looked at the boy hopefully.
Their moment was broken when girl in question came to sit with them. “Hey, why aren’t ya’ll playin’?” she asked innocently.
The other two looked at each other, wondering how to approach this huge gulf that had suddenly sprung up between them. Mark decided to speak first: “We just don’t think it’s all that special of a place really. It’s nothin’ like the park.”
Savannah looked completely shocked and even a little offended at this. “Mark McGovern, you’re just sour ‘cuz you lost your argument with Abby. Now you look her in the eye and tell her you’re wrong and she’s right. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re wrong, and you know it!”
Mark was taken aback by this sudden burst of confidence from his normally quiet friend, and he turned to Abby for his defense.
“uh… well, I just don’t think…” she stumbled over the words that she suddenly found impossible to say. She had just had an entire conversation about her disappointment, but for some reason, to say it to Savannah was a whole other matter. Mark understood her sorrow and her pain because he was missing out too. There was a little gap to breach being as he had no expectations to be let down on, but he was still easier to talk to than Savannah. How could she possibly tell the girl that she simply didn’t see what she saw?
“uh… well, I don’t really see anything special… you know… like Mark said” she tried again. It still didn’t sound very convincing. She briefly wondered what would happen if she stood up and told Savannah that she was being silly and that the whole story had been made up for fun. Would Savannah laugh and apologize for being so easily fooled? Or did she really see this magic?
“Abby, you were right, now why ain’t you rubbing Mark’s nose in it like you always do?” asked Savannah, clearly not seeing the chasm that the other two saw. “We all see it: me, Josh, Jacob. We see how the stream sparkles just perfectly, and how all of the trees are just perfect for both climbing and sitting under, and we all hear the birds. You sayin’ you two don’t?”
Abby turned again to the little brook, so small that you had to search hard to find it. She looked and looked for nearly three whole minutes while the others watched her silently. She listened as carefully as she could for the birds, but by now they were completely silent. She reached out and touched the trunk of the old oak tree; it was gnarled and soft and rotted. This was not the paradise she had imagined, and it never would be.
She looked at Savannah and tried to smile, but instead, tears began to roll again. “Abby, don’t cry!” whined Savannah as she too began to choke up. “If you don’t see it now, you will one day.” She reached out and engulfed her beloved friend in a deep embrace and buried her head in the shoulder of Abby’s t-shirt. Mark even joined with an awkward rub on the back. “Mama always says that sometimes you don’t see things ‘cuz you just ain’t ready to see them yet,” continued Savannah, “One day you’ll see it, and you’ll be so happy when you do!”
The three friends stayed wrapped together for a while longer after that. The twins found plenty of ways to amuse themselves, so there was little need to worry about them. Instead, the three held on to each other, as though at any minute, a horn would sound and Abby and Mark would be driven from the Sacred Grove and a guard would be set so that they could never enter again. Abby knew that when she did have to leave the Sacred Grove, she would never want to come back. She had held the faith, she had traveled the distance, through briars and thorns, with two devils at her side, but she had seen nothing. She knew that whether she and Mark returned, Savannah would always have a home here. There would always be a rift between the seeing and the blind; three children couldn’t change that. But for these last few moments, as they stood there in each other’s arms, the Sacred Grove was still a beautiful story, where everyone who was faithful would be rewarded and see the magic.

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