Authors: John Saul
“Don’t go into the woods, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth played the light over the floor of the cavern, and the object which had glinted from above suddenly flashed once more: a gold bracelet, set with a small opal.
It was still on the wrist of its owner.
The skeleton lay directly below the opening of the shaft Here and there small pieces of rotten cloth clung to it, but they disintegrated into dust when Elizabeth touched them. She played the light over the skull. She picked up a rusted metal barrette that lay next to it and examined it carefully. She nodded to herself.
“I knew you were here,” she whispered.
“Everything will be all right now. You’ll see.”
Books by John Saul
SUFFER THE CHILDREN
PUNISH THE SINNERS
CRY FOR THE STRANGERS
COMES THE BLIND FURY
WHEN THE WIND BLOWS
THE GOD PROJECT
THE RIGHT HAND OF EVIL
a division of
Random House, Inc.
New York, New York 10036
Copyright © 1977 by John Saul
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law.
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For Michael Sack, without whom this
book would not have been written
The surf was high that day, adding a backdrop of sound to the late summer afternoon. High above the sea, the same wind that built the waves seemed only to stroke the grass in which the child played.
She was a pretty thing, eleven years old, the cornflower blue of her dress matching her eyes, and the blond hair that only children possess cascading down her back and over her shoulders as she bent to examine one of the tiny creatures that shared her world. She poked at it with one small finger, then pulled the finger away almost before she heard the tiny snap that signaled the beetle’s ascent into the air. She watched it fall back to earth, and before it could scuttle away into the grass she poked it again. Again it snapped, rose into the air, and fell back to earth. She smiled to herself, then picked up the beetle and put it in her pocket Through the heavy material she could just feel the movement of the struggling insect; its snapping sounds were completely muffled.
She glanced toward the house a hundred yards away, then toward the road that wound down the hill and out of sight She half expected to see a carriage coming up the hill, and her mother waiting expectantly on the porch. But it was too early, much too early. She wondered what her grandmother would bring. She hoped it would be a pet. The child liked pets.
Her attention changed as a gust of wind hit her, and she turned to face the stand of woods that separated
the field from the high bank of the ocean beyond. For a long time she stared into the wood, almost as though she saw something there, something that was almost within her range of vision, yet hovered just beyond the edge of sight. She felt an urge to go to the woods, to step in among the trees and ferns and lose herself from the house behind her. She knew she shouldn’t She knew the woods were beyond the limits, that there was danger there. But still, it would be nice to wander in the trees …
Perhaps that was why she began to follow the rabbit.
Within the forest, hidden by the foliage and the shadows of the trees above, a man sat staring out into the field. His eyes never left the child, never glanced to the side or farther out to the house that loomed across the field. It was as if he were hypnotized, part of the scene, yet somehow separated from it.
He watched in silence as the child looked first toward the house, then to the road, and finally turned to look directly toward him. For a long moment, as she seemed to examine him, seemed to look into his soul, he was afraid she was going to turn and run. His muscles tensed, but he felt nothing as he stared out of the darkness. Then the moment was over. The girl turned away, and the man relaxed. His hand reached for the bottle propped against a rock next to him, and he took a long drink.
It was a small rabbit, and the child knew it couldn’t have been more than a few months old. It peered at her from beneath a bush, as if it knew that it was visible but hoped that maybe no one would notice. For a long time it held very still as the child approached it, but when she was still ten feet away she saw it begin to twitch its nose. She knew that it was about to bolt
Still, if she held herself completely motionless, maybe it would relax again, and then she could creep a little closer. She waited until the rabbit’s nose stopped moving, then inched closer. Another foot. The nose began twitching again. She stopped. The rabbit sat up and cocked its ears. The child held still. Carefully, the rabbit eased back down to all fours, and it laid its ears back, as if to disappear entirely into the brush.
The child moved forward once again, and the rabbit bolted. Startled, the child jumped a little too, but her eyes never left the rabbit.
She saw that it was crippled.
One of its hind legs was much weaker than the other, so that when it leaped, it veered a bit to the left. And it seemed to be slow.
Maybe she could help it.
She began following, creeping as close to the rabbit as she could get, then watching in disappointment as it evaded her. The rabbit seemed to have no plan in mind, and for a long time it darted back and forth across the field, hiding first under one bush, then under another.
In the woods, the man watched the chase, his eyes never leaving the child. Occasionally he would see a grayish blur out of the corner of his eye, and he was half aware that it was a rabbit. But it didn’t matter to him.
What mattered was the child.
He raised the bottle to his mouth again, and then it was empty.
Suddenly the rabbit seemed to develop a plan. It began making its way toward the woods, still not in a straight line, but with a series of leftward-veering hops that was drawing it directly toward the spot where the man waited.
The child, now conscious only of the rabbit, followed along, quickening her pace. She was beginning to beable
to anticipate the rabbit, to correct for its error even before it made its jump. As it leaped into the woods, the girl was only a few feet behind.
The man rose out of the bushes, the bottle held aloft, the knuckles of his right hand white as they gripped its neck. He brought the bottle down hard, crushing the rabbit’s skull just as it came to light at his feet. He straightened up in time to see the child step from the light of the field into the shadows of the forest. The wind seemed to pick up, and the roar of the surf grew louder.
She didn’t see the rabbit die.
Rather, her mind held impressions:
The rabbit bouncing out of the field into the woods.
A shape looming before her that hadn’t been there a second before.
A sound, not a crashing, but a sort of a dull crunching, and then the rabbit, the small animal that she had hoped to help, lying twitching at the feet of the man.
She looked up into his face.
The eyes were bloodshot, and a stubble of beard showed on his chin. His eyes, which might once have been the sparkling blue of an autumn sky, had gone dull, and the hair was a colorless tangle that made his features almost unrecognizable. A flicker of recognition crossed the child’s face, but disappeared as the beginning of a cry built in her throat when the man dropped the bottle and reached for her.
One arm snaked around her small body, and the hand that had held the bottle moved to cover her mouth before the cry could be sounded. Her tongue touched his hand, and recoiled from the taste of whiskey.
He picked her up effortlessly and swung around to carry her deeper into the wood. As she struggled in his arms, his grip tightened, and he began to feel a heat in his groin not caused by the liquor in his blood.
He did it silently.
Silently he set her down in a small clearing, and silently he pulled at his belt.
When it was free, he used it to bind her wrists, and when she broke the silence with her cries, he slapped her, hard. Her cries died away to a moan, and she stared up at him with the fear of a trapped animal. The sun disappeared behind a cloud.
He dressed slowly, then removed the belt from the girl’s wrists and replaced it around his waist Then he rearranged the child’s torn garments as best he could, and picked her up as gently as he knew how. He cradled her head against his shoulder as he carried her on through the woods, and then he was out of the woods once more, standing on the high bank, holding his child out to the sea, almost as an offering.
It began to rain.
For long moments he stood, as if waiting for a sign of some kind. Then, adjusting the child in his arms so that he would have one hand free, he began picking his way down the embankment, skirting the rocks with a sure step, his free hand steadying himself only when his weight tilted a loose stone.
When he was still fifty feet above the surf he began to make his way around a large boulder. Behind it, hidden from all but the most careful eye, the solid wall of the embankment was broken by a small opening. He pushed the limp form of the child into the opening; then he disappeared after it.
The sky seemed to open up as he emerged, alone, from the opening in the embankment, and the wind whipped rain and sea-spray into his face. The waters mixed, and a strange bittersweetness crossed his tongue. Without looking back at the cave entrance, he began making his way back up the embankment.