The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  “I will listen, if you will tell me something,” Willow offered. “Tell me anything, Dirk. Any of your secrets. I know so little of what is happening, and I am hungry for even a small bit of knowledge. Can you tell me something?”

  Dirk looked at her, then began to wash. He licked himself fluffy and then licked himself smooth, stopping every now and then to see if she was still paying attention. He took his time with the job, but Willow waited patiently, refusing to become perturbed. Finally Dirk was finished, and turned his emerald gaze upon her.

  “You are going to have a child,” he declared. “But matters will not work out as either you or Holiday expect them to. Expectations are dangerous things for parents to have, you know. Cats have none and are the better for it.”

  She nodded. “We can’t help ourselves. Like not listening to cats.”

  “I suppose that is true,” Dirk agreed. “A shame.”

  “Tell me something more.”

  Dirk narrowed his gaze. “Are you sure you want to hear what I have to say? I mean, that is part of the reason no one listens to cats.”

  She hesitated. “Yes, I want to hear.”

  “Very well.” He considered. “You and Holiday will be lost to each other for a time. In fact, you are lost to each other already. Didn’t you know?”

  “The vision,” she said softly. “My mother’s vision.”

  Dirk looked off into the growing dark. “You spend so much time wondering who you are, don’t you think? You flounder about, searching for your identity, when most of the time it is as plain as the nose on your face. You struggle with questions of purpose and need, and forget that the answers are found mostly inside yourselves.” He paused anew. “Cats are not included in that analysis. Cats don’t waste time wondering about such things. Cats just get on with the business of living.”

  “Is the vision true, then?” she asked, trying to mask the growing sense of desperation she felt that something terrible was happening to Ben, something beyond her control.

  Dirk blinked. “What vision?”

  “Is Ben in danger?” she pressed.

  “How would I know?” Dirk growled, stretching once more. “Better step back from that deadwood.”

  She did so, and Dirk shimmered and turned to crystalline in the fading twilight, gone from flesh and blood to liquid glass, drew in the glow of sunset, two early moons, and a scattering of stars, and sent fire lancing from his emerald eyes into the wood. The blaze burned hotly, and the prism cat transformed back again, settled himself down anew on Willow’s cloak, closed his eyes, and was instantly asleep.

  Willow watched him for a time, then fell asleep as well.

  She slept poorly, haunted by dreams of Ben and their child, of each being drawn away from her, stolen by invisible hands that wrapped about and pulled them from her side until nothing remained but the echo of her voice calling after them. There was an unspoken suggestion in her dream that somehow she was to blame for what had happened to them, that somehow she had failed them when they needed her most.

  She had no appetite for breakfast, and since Dirk never showed any interest in food, they washed and were on their way up to the beginnings of the fairy mists shortly after sunrise.

  The day dawned hot and still, the summer air a suffocating blanket that clung to the land even in the high country. Dew formed a slick upon the ground, and its dampness glimmered in the hazy first light. They climbed the rest of the way into the hills, found a narrows that led into a pass, and walked back toward the gray gloom of the mists.

  They reached their destination in less than an hour and started in. No words passed between them as they did. Dirk had taken the lead now, no longer content to leave matters to chance. He walked directly in front of the sylph, picking his way carefully over ruts, around stones, and across bare ground where lack of sunlight prevented any grasses from growing. They moved into the haze, following the trail until there ceased to be a trail and all the light from the rising sun had disappeared behind them and there was nothing but mist, swirling about them with relentless purpose, twisting first this way and then that, drawing the eyes to one side and then to the other, obscuring any sense of direction, any chance of keeping track of where they were going or from where they had come. Willow ignored the distracting movement, focusing her attention on Dirk, who sauntered along with his usual indifference, seeming to find his way as much by chance as by plan. He glanced neither left nor right and did not turn to see if she was following. He sniffed the air now and again, but otherwise showed no interest in their surroundings.

  The minutes slipped away, but it was not clear to Willow how many of them passed. Time and place lost meaning, and everything took on a disturbing sameness. There was silence at first, deep and numbing, and then a series of small sounds, like the scuffling of forest animals in scrub or birds among leaves. After a time, the noises took on definition and began to suggest the presence of something else. Faces began to appear, just at the corners of her vision, just where they could be glimpsed but nothing more. The faces were sharp-featured and lean, with pointed ears and brows, and hair like trailing moss and spiky straw. Eyes as penetrating as an owl’s watched her pass. The fairy folk had come out to see her, to consider her, and perhaps to let her pass. She did not look at them, keeping her eyes fixed on the movement of her feet and on Edgewood Dirk. She did not look at them because she was frightened that if she did, she would be instantly lost.

  Something brushed at her cheek, and tears filled her eyes. Something rubbed against her hand, and she felt a sudden heat rush through her. Her skin crawled and her mouth went dry. Don’t look she told herself. Don’t turn to see what it is. She pressed on, following diligently after Dirk, thinking of the baby inside her, thinking of Ben waiting somewhere behind, hardening herself against her fear …

  Until finally the mists began to drop away, and she could see something solid ahead through the haze. A shadowed darkness cloaked a wall of mortared stone, and rain drizzled down out of leaden skies. There were strange mechanical sounds and muffled shouts, and the wall rose high overhead and was lost in gloom. The mists receded behind her, and she found herself standing in the rain in an alleyway that ran like a deep crevice between two towering buildings. Clouds masked the skies and scraped against the tops of the buildings. Shadows cascaded down off the walls to pool underfoot. Smells rose up from the cracked stone surface on which they stood, pungent and rank.

  “Where are we?” she whispered in horror.

  Something moved to one side. It was a man in ragged clothing, sprawled in the lee of a doorway, curled up and sleeping. He was wrapped in pieces of cardboard to shield himself from the weather. An empty bottle was clutched in one hand.

  Dirk sniffed in the direction of the man and turned away. He looked up and down the alley. One end went nowhere. The other led to a noisy street. Turning toward the latter, he stepped daintily over pieces of garbage strewn from an overturned container, flinching with displeasure at what he felt, and started in the direction of the noise. Willow followed.

  They walked toward the end of the alley, watching the street beyond come into focus through the rain, seeing movement begin, hearing the sounds grow louder. There were cars and buses streaming past, moving in fits and starts, horns blaring, brakes squealing. Willow knew about these things from her last visit. She had no idea what Dirk knew. What she remembered was not pleasant. She was already cringing from the impact of the sounds and smells. With the dirt and grit it gathered, the rain smeared on the stone beneath her boots and pooled in gutters and low spots amid the garbage. Broken glass glinted everywhere.

  They reached the end of the alley and looked out onto the street. The cars and buses were locked close together in the gloom and drizzle, crawling in one direction toward another line of vehicles traveling crosswise. Red and green lights blinked down from lines overhead. Yellow lights shone from street lamps and through the windows of buildings with peeling paint and cracked mortar.

  And there w
ere people everywhere, most in long coats, some in boots. They walked with their heads bent and carried strange implements—Willow didn’t know the proper name—to shield them from the rain. They shuffled along with a sense of urgency and resignation that was palpable. A few glanced in her direction, but looked quickly away again. They climbed in and out of the buses and cars, and they moved in and out of doorways. A few spoke, but most of what they said was shouted in anger at one another.

  Dirk sniffed the air and looked about, seemingly unfazed. Then he moved out from the alley and started left down the walkway. Willow followed. A crush of people caught them up and swept them along. Willow pulled her cloak tightly about her shoulders, hating the closeness of the people and the smell they gave off. She thought of Ben living in such a world and found she could not imagine it.

  They reached a corner and stopped because everyone else was stopped as well. A few bold looks were directed at her, but she ignored them. She stared about at the buildings, some of them monstrous stone and glass monoliths that soared into the clouds, featureless and impregnable-looking. Did people live in those? she wondered. What purpose did they serve?

  To her surprise she found she could understand what the people about her were saying. She should not have been able to do that unless they were speaking in the languages of Landover, but she could. She looked up at a sign on the street corner beside her. She could read it. It said Greenwich Avenue.

  Above her the light changed, and people began to cross the street. She followed with Dirk.

  On the other side, about a block away, a woman with a ring through her nose tried to kick Dirk when he walked in front of her. The kick should have connected, but somehow it missed and struck an iron railing in front of a low window and caused the woman to lose her balance and fall down. The woman shrieked in fury and swore violently at Dirk, but the cat went past the woman without a glance. Willow did the same.

  “Hey, lady, spare some change?” a sallow-faced man with long hair and a beard asked. She shook her head and walked on. “It’s a little late for St. Patrick’s, isn’t it?” he called after her, and laughed.

  She bent down to Dirk. “Do we understand their language?” she asked curiously.

  “We do,” Dirk replied. “A little fairy magic lets us do that.”

  They walked for some time through the crowds. The rains diminished and the skies cleared. The cars and buses began to pick up speed. It grew more dangerous at the crossings. The crowds thinned somewhat, changing character as they moved down the street. The men and women in tailored clothing gave way to a more casual and eclectic group. There were people in leather and chains and metal-tipped boots who slouched along with exaggerated movements or leaned against building walls; people in long, peach-colored robes with shaved heads and earnest looks passing out papers; ragged people with dogs and cats and babies carrying small handmade signs that said things like PLEASE HELP and NO FOOD; people with shopping bags and handbags clutched tightly against their chests as they walked; people of all sorts, all possessed of the same uneasy, guarded look, all with eyes that shifted and searched, all with a posture that either challenged or bordered on flight.

  Comments were directed openly at Willow from those they passed, some brazen and insulting, some joking and curious. A few people tried to stop her, but she simply moved past them, following Dirk along the walk.

  They reached a particularly busy cross street and Dirk stopped. A street sign read Avenue of the Americas. Dirk glanced at Willow as if to say, See there? Willow did not see. She did not understand where they were or why. She mostly wanted to get to wherever it was they were going and then get out. Everything about this place was unpleasant and unwelcoming. She wanted to ask Dirk if he had any idea at all where he was going, but she did not think he wanted her to speak to him with all these people about. Besides, he must have some idea; he was certainly moving down the street as if he did.

  “Are you lost?” a young woman standing next to her asked. The woman was dark-skinned. She was holding a small child in her arms.

  “No,” Willow said without thinking, but realized as she did that she could speak the language of Ben’s world as well as read and understand it. Dirk must be at work with his fairy magic.

  “Are you sure? You look confused.” She smiled. “You can get lost in this city pretty easy.”

  “Thank you, I’m fine,” Willow said.

  The light changed, and the woman walked away. Dirk and Willow crossed to a new street that read West 8th. There were people everywhere. Storefronts opened onto the walkway, small markets of fruit and vegetables, craft shops with jewelry and bright clothing, doorways leading to food and drink and wares of all sorts. Stands were set up along the street with books and more jewelry. Vendors called to her. Want to buy this, take a look at that? They smiled, some of them, and she smiled back, shaking her head no.

  “What a great look!” someone said, and she turned. A young man with a long dark coat, boots, a light beard, and a leather folder stood looking at her. “You aren’t an actress, are you?”

  “No.” She shook her head. Dirk was still moving down the street. “I have to go.”

  “Wait!” He began walking with her. “Uh, look, I thought that … well, because you’re colored green, I thought that … that because you were dressed up, you might be an actress or something. Like in Cats. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude.”

  She smiled. “You weren’t.”

  “My name is Tony. Tony Paolo. I live a few blocks away. I’m studying to be an actor. I’m in my second year at American Academy. You been there? Dustin Hoffman went there. Danny DeVito. Lots of people. I just finished a reading for a part on Broadway. A comedy, Neil Simon. This is my portfolio, you know, my pictures and stuff.” He indicated the folder. “It’s just a small part, just a few lines. But it’s a start.”

  She nodded and kept walking. She didn’t have any idea at all what he was talking about.

  “Look, can I buy you a cup of coffee or something? If you have some time?”

  Ahead of her, Dirk had turned around and come back. Now he moved between her legs and looked up at Tony. “That your cat?” Tony asked. “Hey, kitty, kitty.”

  “Keep your hands to yourself,” Dirk snapped as Tony started to reach down to pet him.

  Tony straightened instantly. He stared at Willow. “Hey, that’s pretty good! How did you do that?” He grinned. “That’s the best I’ve ever heard that done. Do some more.”

  “We could use something to eat,” Dirk said.

  “Man, I couldn’t even see your lips move!” Tony declared in amazement. “That’s some talent! A bite to eat, huh? Okay, why not? There’s a little coffeehouse just around the corner. You know the Village? You from around here?”

  He led the way through the crowds to a small shop with round tables covered with checkered oilcloth and straight-backed iron chairs with matching checkered cushions. Tony waved to someone working behind the counter and took a table near the entry. Willow and Dirk both sat down with him.

  “So what do you want?” Tony asked. He had lank brown hair, dark eyes, and a quick, unassuming smile.

  “You decide,” Dirk said.

  Tony did, ordering food for himself and Willow and a saucer of milk for Dirk. When the food arrived, Willow found herself hungrier than she thought, and she ate everything without bothering to decide whether she liked it. Tony ate with her, talking about how good she was at throwing her voice and about his life as an actor-in-training. Dirk sat in front of the milk and ignored it.

  “You know, I forgot to ask your name,” Tony said in midbite.

  “Willow,” she answered.

  “Really? What a great name. So, are you a ventriloquist all the time or do you have a job doing something else?”

  She hesitated. What was she supposed to say?

  “That’s okay, you don’t have to tell me. But you’re not an actress, I guess, right?”

  “No, not an actress.”

  When t
hey were finished, Tony asked her again, “Do you live around here somewhere?”

  She glanced at Dirk, who was staring out the door, ready to be off. “No, just visiting.”

  “From where?”

  “Landover.” She said it before she could catch herself.

  “Sure, Maryland, right? I know Landover. Who are you staying with here? Do you have friends or something?”

  She shook her head. “I have to go now, Tony. Thank you for the meal. I hope you become a good actor.”

  She stood up and started for the door. Dirk was already outside on the walkway. “Hey, wait!” Tony called, throwing some money on the table and charging after her. He caught up with her outside. “Can I see you again, maybe?”

  She shook her head and walked on, wondering how to get out of this. Tony walked with her. “I know this is kind of sudden, but … well, I really would like to take you to dinner or a play or something. Even if I have to come down to Landover …”

  “She’s married,” Dirk announced. “Happily.”

  Tony stopped in his tracks. “Oh. Sorry, I didn’t realize …”

  They crossed the street in a clutch of traffic and left him groping for something else to say. He carefully watched their progress.

  Nightfall set in shortly after, a sudden darkening of the skies as the sun set and the clouds returned, a fading of the light that brought up the city’s lamps. Willow and Dirk were seated on a bench in a park with a large marble arch. It was called Washington Square. It had been filled with people until just a few minutes ago, people with newspapers and babies, people with dogs and toys, but now with the sun gone and with the day ending it was emptying out. There were only a few old men left sitting on other benches and a handful of young boys huddled under a tree at the far end. A ragged man with a dog was holding out a metal cup by the street corner.

  Only a few hours had passed since Dirk and Willow had arrived from Landover where it had been early morning, and that meant time did not pass at the same speed in the two worlds. How did that effect aging when you crossed from one world into the other? Willow wondered. Was she aging differently than Ben? She stared out into the gloom, watching the city lights beyond the park brighten. Dirk was hunched down beside her with his paws tucked underneath his body and his eyes closed. He had told her when they were alone that they must wait for night when the park was clear so that they would not be disturbed. It appeared that it was here that she was supposed to gather the soil she needed, but Dirk hadn’t volunteered anything specific. Dirk rarely did.

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