On the way back to Mrs. Moth’s house, or rather a short detour from it, there is a sort of waste. What I mean by a waste is land that is no good for farming. It’s in the foothills of the mountains, and there are large stones. You can see them sticking out of the ground. Around those stones are the sorts of plants I would call weeds if they weren’t so interesting: milkweeds that let their brown seeds fly on white tufts in the autumn, chickory that would be dusky blue when summer came, canes of blackberries that I had to avoid because I did not want to rip Hyacinth’s jeans. In autumn I would come back with a bucket to pick them for eating and pie. But now there were no seeds on the wind, no flowers, no berries. The crab apple trees, small and gnarled, that grew here and there had buds on them, that was all. (Mrs. Moth makes the best crab apple jam.)
Now there was nothing but earth, brown stems, brown canes with thorns for me to avoid. Buds on the canes that showed where there would eventually be small white flowers. And stones.
I sat on one of the stones. The waste was higher up than the rest of the country, so I could see all around: on one side down to Shadow, on the other down in the direction of Mrs. Moths’ house. I could see all the farms, the neatly plowed earth ready for seeds, the straight hedges. But up on the waste, nothing was straight, nothing was neat. It was all wild and tangled. The wind began to tangle my hair as well.
“Do you like it here?”
He was a pale ghost-version of himself, sitting on the rock beside me. I could see the sky through him.
“I do. I like it a lot. It’s peaceful.”
“It doesn’t need to be pretty. I think I like the places that aren’t pretty best, anyway.”
He was silent for a while, then said, “You seem sad.”
“I am,” I said. “I am sad. I came here because I lost something.”
“What did you lose?” he asked.
“Oh, a friend.” I surreptitiously wiped my eyes. I didn’t want him to see that.
He began to wave his hands, as though he were conducting an invisible symphony. In front of him, in the air, an image formed: a man, eyes closed. With the living tree around him, the layers of bole and bark. He was so pale, as though dead although I knew he was not dead.
“Is that your friend?” he asked. “The one you’re sad about? I found him in your head.”
“Yes, that’s my friend.” I looked at him, so pleased with himself. And then at the man in the tree, his double down to the slant of the cheekbones.
“What’s his name?”
“That I can’t tell you,” I said.
“Because you don’t know it?” Oh, I knew it. How well I knew it. As well as I knew my own name. “Maybe I can guess. Is it Rumplestiltskin?”
“No.” I smiled, expecting a whole litany of guesses, but that seemed to be the limit of his ingenuity. He was a ghost in more ways than one: ghost of the man, of the intellect.
“Why is your friend sleeping in a tree?” he asked next.
I picked a milkweed pod from the previous autumn that still has some seeds in it. I set them sailing on their white tufts. “He became trapped. He’s been trapped for a long time.” That’s the problem with time travel. You become trapped in the past and live on into the present. It helps to be immortal.
“Why can’t you get him out?”
“He’s the only one who can get himself out. He got himself in, you see.” I’m sure he had very good reasons. He always seemed to have good reasons for what he did. But there he was, in consequence: trapped in the bole of a tree for a thousand years. “He could get himself out if he could just remember who he is. But no one can tell him, he has to discover it for himself.”
“Who is he?” asked the ghost. I reached over, tried to touch his translucent hand, felt only the stone underneath. Not even to be able to touch . . .
“He’s the greatest magician who was ever born. Only he can break his own spell.”
“Oh, I see.” But he didn’t. He never did, never would. He was just a projection, the shallowest recollection of the man in the tree, some charm, some parlor tricks. All I had left of what had once been. I looked at the man who seemed dead but was not. How would he ever get out? How would he ever remember what he was, the power he had? His own name? The magic he wielded?
I blew on the image of the man in the tree and it vanished. As I walked away from the waste, glad to have spent a while even with his ghost, I looked back once: the ghost was still there, sitting on the stone, watching a line of ants. You once moved galaxies, I wanted to tell him.
But what was the use? He would be amused, would not understand. I got back on the bicycle and headed toward Mrs. Moth’s house. It was getting cold, and I knew there was dinner waiting.