He read over the instructions a few times – they didn’t even take up one page – and decided he could do it tonight, probably before the sun came up. There was no rush, since his mother worked from five till two on Saturday mornings and his father played golf from six till one. Matt and Steph were home with whatever virus was going around and Elyse and Dale both had other family obligations. He had all day, but he was desperate to find out the truth, one way or the other. It had to be now.
He put on a jacket and runners and crept downstairs to the garage. He switched on the flickering light and pinched his nose against the sudden urge to sneeze from the clouds of dust he inhaled. Someone had some serious spring cleaning to do. He walked between the parked cars to the back wall, where his father kept all of his tools hanging on hooks drilled into the brickwork. He took a large, thick nail the length of his index finger, a hammer, a chisel, and a short but razor sharp knife meant for carving wood. He didn’t need a torch since the sky was already turning from black to light grey.
Theoretically, he could have made the door anywhere natural, or so the book said. His back yard would have worked, only he didn’t feel like explaining to his mother why her painstakingly grown bottlebrush was covered in holes and scratches. Instead, he left the house via the newly oiled side gate and started down the road to Westlake Reserve.
Westlake was a fifty acre park ten minutes from his house. Strictly speaking, only the houses which surrounded it were allowed access to the sprawling fields, miniature forest, jungle gyms and the lake, and the narrow grass pathways had little wooden signs stating: Private Access Only. Brian and his friends often spent afternoons there after school, playing on the small rock face they referred to as ‘the cliffs’, and climbing trees, but so far no one had noticed them or complained. So few other people seemed to frequent the park, in fact, that it almost had the feel of their own secret garden. On the rare occasions they saw others it seemed that they were the real trespassers.
The rain had finally stopped and only a soft breeze persisted, but it was enough to make Brian shiver before he reached the park. There were plenty of trees around and, even though he didn’t really think it would work… What if it did? So he pushed on, past a rusty playground, through an empty field, and at last into the spaced out forest at the bottom of a hill. Even during the day the forest was usually empty of people – it was tedious to walk dogs in there or take a stroll, and that was all any of the boring oldies in the area seemed to do.
It was light enough to see when at last he stopped walking, somewhere close to the middle of the forest. He felt so isolated, though the trees were alive with raucous birds. This was the magic of Westlake. It was a secret garden all of their own, hidden in plain sight. They’d walked its gravel paths so often, yet always there was the feeling they’d come across something new. A pond full of colourful fish and perfect for swimming, or a field of tall grass where they could lie and never be found. You only had to walk off the beaten track for a minute before you felt like you were a thousand kilometres from civilisation and surrounded by wilderness.
‘You’re crazy, Brian,’ he said out loud, grinning. His voice croaked. He picked his tree, a tall pine, lay the tools out on the pine needles in front of him, and set to work, shaking his head every now and again as though he couldn’t believe he was being so gullible. If this didn’t work, he decided, he was going to be an adult and root himself in reality forever. It would be like finding out Santa wasn’t real: as a child you knew it deep down, but once you learned the truth life was never the same again.
Whatever. It had to be done.
He placed the thick nail in the centre of the trunk at about chest level, and hammered until it was about four centimetres in, then used the claw end of the hammer to pull it back out. Feeling impossibly dumb, the dreamy fever of an hour ago fading quickly, he picked up the chisel and knocked out a thick sliver of bark from the other side of the tree. For the next ten minutes, he used the short knife to carve the sliver until it roughly resembled a key. It had a round back and a jagged point, and he decided that was the best he could do. According to Zindel, the better the key was, the easier the door would open and close, but it didn’t make much difference.
Finally, he used the chisel and the short knife to carve the outline of the door on the trunk. He made a straight line a few centimetres off the ground, then two curving lines that met just above eye level in a pointed arch. He stood back and stared at his handiwork.
What he now had was a bunch of shallow cuts and a hole in a tree and a piece of wood in his hand. He felt depleted. He knew it wasn’t going to work. With every second, the sky grew brighter and Brian felt duller. Soon the morning joggers would be in the park, the sun would be high in the sky and the last vestiges of excitement would be gone from him.
‘Gotta finish now,’ he muttered. He sat cross legged in front of the tree and braced himself for what he had to do next. He held the knife against his left palm and closed his eyes. He pressed down.
Shit! It hurt. He pressed harder and drew it across his skin, slow at first, then quickly. He opened his eyes and saw a small cut welling up with blood, and he tried to cover as much of the makeshift key as he could. In the end, it was nowhere near enough and he had to cut himself again, this time gritting his teeth and pulling the knife roughly across his hand. This time there was just enough to make the key damp with his blood, and he let out a long sigh.
He now had a carved tree and a bloody chunk of wood. And a cut. ‘Brian, you’re an idiot,’ he said.
Ah, well. The worst was over, anyway. There was one last thing to do, and it would take just a second. He stood up in front of the tree, looked at it doubtfully, and said the words that Zindel had assured would breathe life into his creation, infusing them with as much reverence as he could muster: ‘Lanua Patet’.
His voice sounded strange to his ears, and it was a few moments before he realised why: the birds had stopped singing. The forest had become silent. Weird. The door hadn’t changed, of course. Or… no. The edges looked deeper, but that was only the morning light casting shadows into the shallow incisions.
He was just going through the motions now, doing what he had to do so he could go home and sleep without wondering and teasing himself with wild fantasies. He stepped forward and pushed the key into the hole he’d made. It didn’t go in easily, and he had to twist and push a couple of times before it was in all the way to the base. He turned it.
The key clicked in the hole. There was the sound of small, wooden tumblers shifting within the bark, of unseen mechanisms at work. A tiny vibration shot up his wrist. Brian stared at the bark in front of him, no longer tired. There was no knob, of course, but when he pulled the key gently the whole section of wood came with it, hinging on the right side and swinging outwards.
He let go and took two steps back, and the door stayed where it was, three quarters open. It was the exact, uneven shape he’d carved in the tree, and the side of it was several centimeters thick. On the other side, there was darkness.
‘Okay.’ he thought. ‘You cut through a thin layer of outer bark. The tree was hollow all along. Just step in and look, and you’ll see inside a hollow tree, that’s all.’
He stepped forward, pulling the door outward the rest of the way. He didn’t see a hollow tree – he saw nothing at all. It was just darkness. But he didn’t feel nothing. There was a breeze, pushing at him. He inhaled and smelt salty, rich air. And it was warmer than the forest, more humid. Thicker. Above all this, though, there was a sense of space. He couldn’t see anything, but he felt open air stretching out before him.
He snatched the key from the lock, slid it into his pocket, and stepped inside.