Chapter 1

Great Aunt Virginia

            No one ever mentioned my Great Aunt Virginia, and whenever anyone accidentally dropped her name, angry hisses hushed everyone until all of us kids were rushed from the room. That's why I was amazed when, at the height of my parent's divorce, while they were screaming unspeakable things at each other, suddenly Mother packed my suitcase and Father drove me to the train station, hardly speaking a word. All the way to Baltimore I stared out of the window, listened to the monotonous rumble of the locomotive's great iron wheels, and sat beside a fat man reading a folded newspaper. What would my Great Aunt Virginia look like, and why was I, a twelve year old girl, left alone on a strange train, being sent to a woman that I knew nothing about?
            My reflection in the dirty window belied my worried expression. My bluebell-bright eyes darted nervously, my tight, frowning lips pursed and pouted, and my long brown hair hung in boring waves over my thin shoulders. I hated my dull hair-color except in bright sunlight when it shined like new chocolate.
            "Baltimore!" the conductor finally announced.
            Carrying my heavy suitcase, I was met on a crowded concrete platform by an austere, aged woman with bright silver hair like chrome wire spun about her head, each strand uniformly rigid and perfectly in place. She had sea-green eyes, was very thin, and wore a long, full dress; a tight bodice above ballooning skirts, under which only the toes of highly-polished, sharp-pointed shoes could be seen. Her dress appeared to be entirely of embroidered black silk with traces of white lace puffing out at her collar and cuffs. A broach on her collar showed a natural golden leaf trapped in a dark-glass oval, but it was of no plant that I recognized. She clutched a small black purse and a thick cane, upon which she leaned only lightly. The cane seemed to be made entirely of ebony, like the black keys on a piano, but it was smooth, intricately carved, and two small red gems gleamed from its handle like watchful eyes.
            "You are my niece's daughter, Audrey Doris Virginia Darby," she said in a strict, crisp tone, with a certainty that surprised me, for never had we met. Nor had I closely equated my second middle name, which she stressed, with hers. I acknowledged her with an apprehensive nod. Why had I been sent to her? How long would I be here, and what would life be like with this strange old woman who looked like she'd just stepped out of a Dickens' novel?
            Walking slowly beside her, I lugged my suitcase, containing my clothes, an extra pair of sneakers, and my laptop, which struck me as ironic; this old woman looked as if she'd never turned on a television, let alone a computer. I noticed that she didn't limp, and walked as if she didn't need her black cane.
            As we reached the street, a great silver car, not a full limousine but very expensive, pulled up in front of us. A uniformed driver got out and opened the door for us, and Great Aunt Virginia ushered me inside. I swiftly reconsidered; life with this old woman might not be so bad if she was rich. In the car, she sat rigid with a taut frown and stared out of the tinted window; I silently wondered what her mansion would look like ... and if it had a pool. However, we drove to a very dilapidated section of town, and the driver let us out before a run-down, grubby tenement building, before which years of litter had collected on the sidewalk. Spray-painted gang-signs decorated its dirty concrete stairs; Great Aunt Virginia ignored them and directed me up the steps. Alarmed, I pulled hard on the rattling knob of a fingerprint-smeared glass-paned front door, but it held inviolate. A series of dirty white buttons beside a column of scrawled names showed that this was a secured entrance, not surprising in such a seedy section of town, but Great Aunt Virginia reached past me and opened the door as if no lock existed.
            "Hurry, child; there's no time to lose," she said.
            Ignoring the grimy elevator, Great Aunt Virginia led me up three flights of stairs, and we entered a small apartment which looked like an old movie set from the prehistoric black-and-white days. Faded wallpaper of dull-pinstripes covered the walls. Crystals hung from ancient lampshades, resembling tiny chandeliers, and dark-stained wooden chairs and couches bore affixed red velvet cushions. Bric-a-brac cluttered the apartment, and faded paintings of strange people, dressed in fashions not worn for a century, stared from wooden frames. Before the couch, rather than a coffee table, stood a short wooden table that seemed to be made for a small child of another age, and around it sat four tiny chairs. One chair was empty, but the other three held a red-plaid jacketed teddy bear with black-button eyes, a very old porcelain doll with long blonde hair wearing a flowing, lacey white dress, and a cloth-sewn jester doll, checkered red and black, all before a miniature pink and blue china tea set, carefully-arranged upon a spotless white lace tablecloth. I stared at the formal child's table and its doll occupants wondering if I'd fallen into a Norman Rockwell painting or if my Great Aunt Virginia was utterly mad.
            "Leave your suitcase by the door," Great Aunt Virginia said, and she hurried me into her equally-antiquated kitchen. There she lit a wooden match and ignited an old gas stove, upon which she placed a large teapot whose distinctive markings matched the child's tea set in the living room. Then she turned to me. "Now, I know that you're not dressed properly, but that will have to wait. I don't suppose that you've ever made tea before?" She opened a great wooden cabinet that sat upon her kitchen counter; inside it were many tan-colored clay jars. "Take the stone pestle and ..."
            "The ... the what?" I asked.
            "This," she said irritably, and she tapped a thick, heavy green marble bowl that had a matching stone handle sticking out of it, which ended in a plain, rough, rounded bottom. "This is a mortar and pestle. You fill the pestle with tea leaves and then grind them with the mortar. Find the jar marked chamomile and take out two large sprigs."
            "I ... I've never ...," I stammered.
            "Obviously, but now you must," Great Aunt Virginia said. "Please hurry."
            "Look, I don't know what's going on ..."
            "Please!" she stressed, a desperate tone to her voice.
            Worried, but fearing what might happen if I disobeyed, I sorted through the clay jars in the wooden cabinet and found one marked 'Chamomile', in which was a bunch of dried weeds. I took out two of the tiny branches, almost a third of her supply, and dropped them into the pestle.
            "Chamomile is for calm, to steady us upon our journey," Great Aunt Virginia said. "Now add half a dandelion leaf."
            I sorted through the jars again, worried that I might be expected to drink whatever I was mixing, until I found one marked 'Dandelion'. The dandelion leaf was long, dried, and brittle. I broke it in half and dropped one part into the mortar.
            "Dandelion is for purity, for only the pure may cross the great river. Next, add three berries of sumach, for we need to arrive whole and in good health."
            "I really don't like tea," I said.
            "Nonsense," Great Aunt Virginia scoffed. "How can you not like what you've never tried? Add the sumach berries first, and then add five blossoms of sweet balm."
            Nine different herbs and spices I added as she closely supervised, and then I ground them into fine powder with the mortar. The pungent aroma tickled my nose and made me feel heady, but I ground until the ancient kettle began to whistle and she turned off the stove.
            "You know ... they sell tea bags in grocery stores," I said.
            "We need homemade; that's very important," Great Aunt Virginia said. "There are many different recipes, too, each of which has a slightly different effect or takes you to a different place."
            "Place? How can ...?"
            "Mind your grinding, child. Every leaf and twig must be finely crushed."
            Soon she pronounced my grinding 'Satisfactory', although with a disdainful sniff that left an exasperated expression on her finely-lined face. She took the lid off her steaming kettle and then had me hold my palms together as she spooned the powdery mess into my bare hands.
            "Now, gently breathe upon it, and then cast it into the water."
            "Breathe on it?"
            "Do it."
            I couldn't stay. I needed to call home, to tell my parents how insane Great Aunt Virginia was. Surely they'd come and rescue me. But I hadn't seen a phone, and doubted if one existed in this bizarre museum. If only mom had given me the cell phone that I'd wanted for Christmas ...!
            With no recourse, I placated my great aunt. I lightly exhaled upon the dry powder, and then dropped the whole mess into the steamy kettle. Its strong scents instantly filled the kitchen with a fragrant, floral, invigorating tanginess that swelled my senses and made me deeply inhale.
            "The tea has to steep," Great Aunt Virginia said. "Let's wait in the parlor."
            Carrying the hot teapot with a potholder to the tiny doll's table, we sat side-by-side on the antique couch, whose red velvet cushions were hard and uncomfortable, not deep and soft. She opened an old wooden box which began to tinkle a slow, merry tune.
            "I know this must seem improper," Great Aunt Virginia said, "but time presses and all explanations would utterly fail to impress the severity of our situation. Trust me, my dear Audrey: you'll soon understand everything."
            "What's going on?" I asked. "What's so urgent?"
            "My friends are in danger," Great Aunt Virginia said, a bitter regret filling her voice. "My friends need help, and I'm too old."
            "Friends?" I asked.
            She glanced longingly at the three dolls sitting in the chairs before her make-believe tea set, and I covered my mouth with my hand, fearing that I'd scream. What were they thinking, sending me here? This batty old woman should be locked up! I may only be twelve, but I'd won three times at Battle of Arcinthia and I could beat any of my classmates at War-Driver. I liked electronic toys, fast food, and modern music, not hot tea, ancient dolls, and wind-up music boxes.
            We sat in silence for five minutes, and then her insanity proved itself.
            "Pour for all five of us, please," Great Aunt Virginia said.
            I glanced disbelieving; five? It was one thing for an old woman to display treasures from her childhood; quite another to believe that they were real. Fear clenched my spine, but what could I do? I considered running out of the door, but in this neighborhood, was that any safer than drinking tea with a mad woman?
            Best to play along, I decided, and then to phone mother, so I poured some of the steaming tea into the large cup which Great Aunt Virginia held out to me, then into each of the four small cups on the table, one in front of each of the three dolls and one before the empty chair.
            "Now sit at the table."
            "I ... I'd rather not," I said, looking at the little baby-chair.
            "You must," Great Aunt Virginia insisted. "These are your friends, too, and you don't want to start by offending them."
            Offend? Children's toys? Surely she couldn't expect ...!
            "I'd like to call home," I said.
            "Later. First, we sit and drink."
            "I don't like tea."
            Only her stern manner made me obey, but my rebellious side was rising; soon I'd display a tantrum seldom seen by adults. Huffily I squeezed onto the hard wooden seat, my hips tightly wedged between the tiny chair's arms. I glanced at each of the three infantile doll's faces, feeling only contempt for their old-world ludicrousness.
            Great Aunt Virginia leaned over and placed a strange, powdery-brown straw into each tea cup on the table.
            "This is a cinnamon stick. Use it like a spoon to stir your tea clockwise three times."
            She put a cinnamon stick into her own glass, and then carefully stirred her tea clockwise three times, counting aloud as she did. Alarmed, but seeing no harm in it, I followed her example, watching the tiny floating herbs swirl in my cup.             "Drink."
            Warily I lifted the steaming cup to my lips. Its spicy aroma filled my nostrils; it actually smelled good. I risked a tiny sip. It was bitter; I preferred soda.
            "Just a little more; we won't be going for long."
            Feeling utterly foolish, I took another sip. What my schoolmates would say if they saw me doing this I shuddered to think about. I'd be a laughingstock if a .jpg ever circulated of me having tea with three ridiculous dolls.
            Suddenly my vision blurred ... and then cleared again. My thoughts grew fuzzy and my head started to spin.
            "What ... what's going on?" I demanded, alarm raising my voice, my patience lost. "What have you given me?"
            "Patience, dear Audrey," Great Aunt Virginia said. "Look at your friends; they're enjoying their tea."
            The three dolls sat unmoving in their chairs, yet as my panic grew, they seemed harmless no longer, now inanimate threats from some spooky Twilight Zone episode, stark and silent, dangerous beyond their innocent countenances. My heart beat fast, my breath rapid; what were all those herbs that I'd drunk? What was in them? Were they something other than what Great Aunt Virginia had named? Was this even my real aunt? I'd never seen her before, not even a picture; this could be some insane stranger impersonating her. Why was I playing with a child's tea set like some brainless kindergartener?
            Suddenly I heard voices laughing, one deep and harsh, another high and whiney, the third soft and musical. I felt very dizzy, my head spun, and I was certain that I was going to be sick. Bright light cascaded upon me, and I winced under its glare.
            "Welcome!" said the soft, musical voice. "So ... you are Great Niece Audrey!"
            Blindness replaced my dizziness; the sun was in my eyes, streaming in through the window; no, it was beaming directly upon my face. A strong breath of wind blew through my hair, suffusing a feeling of expansive openness incongruent with apartment walls: I was outdoors ... in a wide, grassy field filled with bright yellow flowers. The tea cup in my hand was large, not tiny, but otherwise identical, with exactly the same pink and blue floral pattern. The wooden table before me was high and thick under its white lace tablecloth, set exactly as the miniature tea set had been, but with adult-sized plates, cups, and saucers. My chair was suddenly twice as wide as I, and my feet hung a foot above the soil beneath me, my toes just brushing the tips of the tall grasses and flowers.
            Three strange people sat before me, each resembling the dolls that had sat in their places. The teddy bear was a huge man with coarse black hair grown thick on his head, face, chest, and arms, and only his jovial smile, and that he and Great Aunt Virginia were hugging tightly, delayed my screams. He was wearing a thick red plaid jacket, rolled up at the sleeves, with no shirt, just like the teddy bear had worn. Great Aunt Virginia went from him to the jester, a thin, wiry young man, with a crooked smile, who wore a colorful outfit of red and black squares, which decorated even his comical cap with its three tiny bells. He hugged Great Aunt Virginia, and as he did, his sly fingers tickled her waist, and to my utter astonishment, rather than slap him, Great Aunt Virginia giggled like a coy schoolgirl and playfully batted flat the plush top of his tri-pointed cap. Then she went to the last person at the table, who slowly stood to embrace her. This young woman was beautiful, her skin perfect and features flawless, slender and graceful from her long blonde hair to the hem of what looked like a stunning wedding dress. I stared at her; no runway supermodel on the cover of any magazine ever matched her beauty.
            "What's happened?" Great Aunt Virginia asked them.
            "Terrible warnings," the tall, bear-like man said. "The infants are still missing, and ..."
            "Now is not the time for sad news," the beautiful blonde said, and she turned to face me. "Our new friend has joined us at last!"
            "Indeed, we must greet to our new savior!" the jester said, and suddenly, with amazing dexterity, he jumped up onto the table, swept off his colorful tinkling cap, and bowed low to me. Likewise, the big hairy man in the red plaid jacket fumbled to stand and deeply bow, and the beautiful blonde bride performed a perfect curtsey.
            I screamed at last, pressing back against my chair, pushing hard on its sturdy wooden arms in utter horror. My shrill screech strained my voice until I thought I'd tear my vocal cords, and I blasted the whole flowery clearing, echoing deep into the thick, threatening woods surrounding us. Great Aunt Virginia and the three strangers froze and stared, appalled, and when the bride took a hesitant step toward me, Great Aunt Virginia stayed her with a soft hand. I screamed until my lungs emptied, and then gasped several deep, panting breaths.
            "Are you quite finished?" Great Aunt Virginia asked. "There's no need for ill-behavior."
            "Where am I? What did you give me? What was in that tea?"
            "You mixed and ground it," Great Aunt Virginia reminded me. "My tea set brought you here, not the tea."
            "Tea isn't required," Great Aunt Virginia explained. "Good tea makes every journey easier, but I've come here many times without it."
            "Where's ... here?"
            "Explanations must wait," Great Aunt Virginia said. "We must help Falcon."
            Falcon? I had no idea what they were talking about, but the tall bride slid gracefully forward and held out her delicate hand. Hesitantly I touched her slender fingers; she was real, warm and solid, and she gently drew me from my chair and led me toward the nearby dark woods, all the while smiling at me.
            "Where are we going?" I asked.
            "To save our friend," she replied.
            Under the deep shadows of the trees, the sunlight of the clearing behind us shone far brighter than the dim rays filtering through the thick, leafy ceiling. Knotted, gray-black trunks leered, gnarled and wrinkled; I didn't like this forest. Inches from our path on each side lay broken, fallen branches, tall weeds, and the white points of countless sharp thorns threateningly stretching out from wicked, curling vines.
            In a small open space, illuminated by a wide ray of sunlight, I spied an awful sight: a tall, thin man covered in blood, his ragged clothing falling off of him, revealing skin covered with countless tiny cuts, but the man was bleeding no longer. He stood unmoving with an agonized stare in his frozen eyes, his mouth open in a silent scream, trapped inside a giant crystal of what looked like pure glass.
            "Audrey, this is Falcon," Great Aunt Virginia said. "Don't be afraid; Falcon's still alive, but only barely. He'll die soon ... if he's not healed."
            "How can he be ...?" Alive, I wanted to say, but the word caught in my throat. This man was encased in glass, unable to breathe ...!
            "I put him in there," the bride said. "It was the only way to keep him alive until you arrived."
            "Here," said the thin, little man in the bizarre jester's costume, and he handed me ... of all things ... an old green plaited jump rope.
            I examined the jump rope in my hand: a plain braided cord, faded green, between two worn wooden handles. Confused, I stared at them.
            "Just do as I say ...," Great Aunt Virginia said.
            "I'm through listening!" I shouted, unable to restrain myself any longer. "I've been doing what you said, and ... and ...!"
            "A man's life depends on you," the large, bearish man said, his voice very deep and serious.
            My tantrum was about to explode. I wanted to throw the jump rope at them and run away, but ... how could a man's life depend on me?
            "Just repeat after me," Great Aunt Virginia said, and suddenly she started to chant a jump rope song.

"Two steps, four steps,
Six steps, eight
Around and round the holy tree
Over the mandrake
Little boys run and shout
Little girls squeal
Blessed be the holy tree
Forth the magic heal"

            Great Aunt Virginia repeated this over and over, gesturing for me to recite with her. The others stared at me with grim expectation. I could jump rope blindfolded, so I repeated her song; the rhyme was easy, simplistic, yet I was terribly afraid. My questions seemed too implausible to ask, as if their utterance would verify this madness.
            "Keep going," the bride urged, pulling Great Aunt Virginia and the men back. "Keep chanting ... and start jumping rope."
            These people were utterly mad, I knew, but I had no idea where I was, and until I could find a police officer, there was little that I could do. I'd learned to jump rope when I was four, and no harm had ever come from it, so I complied. Easily I flipped the rope over my head and jumped over it as it slapped the ground while I sang their childish song. I did a basic Double Bounce, the simplest and easiest style of jump roping. Their eyes watched me intently and then shifted to Falcon, frozen in his solid glass crystal.
            A strange feeling washed over me. My plain jump rope seemed to sparkle, to shine in the dark forest, as if the old green cord had a light of its own. The gold and silver flashes illuminated everything, banishing the malevolent shadows. A strange sound, like a high-pitched singing, or many violins, filled the air as I watched the green cord flip over my head and fly down to slap the ground. Then, as I chanted, a change came over Falcon; very slowly, almost imperceptibly: the blood covering him started to vanish. The thousand tiny cuts slowly closed, as if healing in seconds what should've taken weeks, but not smoothly; in spurts, with each slap of my rope and the rhythm of my song. Then I realized it: each time that my sparkling jump rope passed over my eyes ... Falcon healed a little more.
            Amazed, I kept jumping rope and chanting the song.
            Finally his ragged garments began mending themselves ... until his shredded rags became an old-fashioned brown leisure suit over a white turtleneck shirt, all looking brand new. The music grew very loud and a weariness that I couldn't explain struck me. I stumbled; the rope slapped into my ankles and I almost fell.
            "Princess Gracely, hurry!" the hairy man said.
            The bride reached out and touched the great glass crystal encasing the living man. Instantly it began to shrink, melting, vanishing as if it had never existed. The tall, thin man inside it gasped and coughed, staggering as if too ill to stand. He had a large beak of a nose and a very tired expression, and held a hand to his head as if pained and weary.
            "Thank you, Audrey," the bride said in her sweet, soft voice, but my eyes blurred. I felt dizzy, weakened by my jump roping, and feared that I'd fall.
            "Come back soon!" the jester shouted, but his voice seemed to echo from far away.

End of Chapter 1