There was a walk-through tunnel at the old Hobs Christopher State Park. The tunnel should still be there, but the area would be overgrown and deserted now. That tunnel is apparently a gateway portal, like the one I’d gone through at the Holding, when Asshole didn’t come to rescue me from the crazy prophet. A person would walk through it either to the other side, as in normal other side of the road. .. or other side, as in… To somewhere else.
The highway bisected the park, which really only consisted of trails alongside a creek. A little farther down the road there was once a learning center. I’d been to it once for a field trip at school before I left with my parents to study plants and people in the jungles of south America.
Anyway. The tunnel made it safer for visitors to hike to the sawmill ruins, because it took them underneath the road to avoid traffic. I wondered how many had not come out to see the other side they expected to see. Surely I wasn’t the only one who could make the crossing to new places.
Getting to the park went without incident. The bridge was functional, if dilapidated, and the roads had potholes. But there was nothing like the ferry crossing at the White River, and I was glad for it. The token Asshole had given me went to the ferry driver and I didn’t have another one.
The gate to the parking area was closed and locked. Trees had grown here and there, breaking through small cracks to make larger spaces in the concrete. I parked in front of the gate and walked around it. The tunnel was only a short sidewalk trip. It too was broken and in the process of nature’s reclamation. I stopped at the entrance and peered into the darkness. Breathe. As I took in a long, slow breath, I tasted the air but there was nothing to detect.
This would be the first time I crossed to another realm on purpose. Another deep breath to steel my resolve and I stepped into the shadows.
Nothing happened at first. I began to wonder if it was a portal at all. The tunnel wasn’t a long one, so I could already see the light on the other end. But the closer I got to it, the more it felt as if the walls were squeezing me. Every step became more difficult. I pushed forward. Every breath was a deep one now. With the first step into the light that spilled in from the other side, the squeezing sensation slowly departed more with each step. Now I took a deep, slow, breath of relief and slowed down. Someone was out there on the other side.
A smallish woman with silver hair down to her knees stood with her back to me. As I neared the breakover point at the end of the tunnel, I could see that she raised her arms in prayer or supplication. Or maybe she just held expressive conversations with trees. Until I crossed completely through, I couldn’t hear her and assumed she couldn’t hear me, either. But once my feet crossed the threshold into her realm, she stiffened. She must’ve felt the presence of another person. I stopped. It was a risky proposition to startle people anywhere these days, but especially in places like this. Who knew what kind of self-defense skills she possessed?
Who even knew if she was human? I’d only seen her back. No telling what face came with the human-like form. I preferred to not be taken as a threat, right off the bat, so I waited, quiet and unmoving, to see how she’d react.
After what felt like minutes, but really must have only been a few seconds, she spoke without turning around.
“Speak to the trees while they’re sleeping, and you have a much better chance at being heard.” She turned slowly to face me where I stood just inside the portal.
The words were addressed to me, that time. She looked me directly in the eyes. I couldn’t tell if she was young or old. But it was a human face. Her eyes held ancient secrets. But her skin and hair both shimmered with a silver sheen, yet looked youthful. Her demeanor belonged someone with more experience than a couple of decades could instill. I decided she must be ancient. Perhaps the guardian of this place. I hoped it was she that Corey told me to find, and that she wouldn’t turn out to be a blood-thirsty demon of some sort.
I’m sure I was an unexpected presence in her realm. There couldn’t be many who knew that the Van Winkle tunnel was also a gateway to another realm, and anyone who didn’t know that would just end up on the other side of the road back in the real world.
It was a crispy morning and I could see my breath. It froze in the air, making tiny glittering frost crystals that swirled around my head. She had them around hers, too. It gave the experience here between us an ethereal feel.
“Really,” I said.
Was that a slight roll of her eyes at me? I think it was.
No fear in her eyes or body scent. Unusual. Anyone else who’d encountered someone who suddenly ended up on the wrong side of a portal would have realized something was very, very wrong, and adrenaline would have kicked in by now. But she wasn’t afraid of me at all. It was almost as if she’d expected me. And she seemed a bit amused at my ignorance about talking to trees.
A little snort blew through my nostrils and the ice crystals swirled harder. I didn’t mean to react so audibly, but her eyeroll drew it out of me before I could rein it back in.
“Yes. Really.” She smiled then and I could see normal teeth. I relaxed a little. Not a carnivore disguised as a woman, at least. She went on. “With most people, it isn’t worth the effort to explain. With this one, though ….”
She trailed off and I couldn’t tell now if she was talking to me or the trees.
“The fact that she’s even here is a good indication that it might be worth the effort this time,” she said.
I decided she’d resumed talking to the tree. Or whatever she’d been talking to before I got there.
“Actually,” she continued, “It’s best if you do it while they’re in that twilight between sleeping and wakefulness.”
I sucked in a deep breath and let it out. “Okay.” A few seconds pause. And then, “Why is that?”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “This one really has me intrigued,” she said, as if to the trees. “Now it is a question. Acknowledgment. A follow-up question.” She smiled broadly. “That means the seeker might be receptive to hearing my answer.”
I was relieved to note that her teeth were normal. Not the teeth of carnivores or monsters. Nothing about her made my hackles raise, but all the same I reserved my judgment.
She turned slightly away and smiled again. This time just a little turn of the lips.
“It was much like this with the trees, too. In the beginning, I always had the sense that they looked away just a little and smiled before they answered me.”
And then she turned back to face me, and gave me the answer.
“Trees are curious while they’re sleeping. But just before they wake, they’re in a hypnotic state and are easily imprinted.”
I laughed. A real, deep, belly laugh. She withdrew some of her enthusiasm, tucked it back into the safe space inside of her eyes, and I knew my response dimmed her glimmer of hope that she’d found an understanding soul.
She turned back to the tree she’d been talking to when I’d arrived.
“Perhaps I expected too much, even from this anomaly of a human who managed to enter this sphere.”
I stopped laughing. “Excuse me,” I said and stuck out my hand. “Hi. My name’s Treya. I think you’re the person I’m seeking”.
Relief washed over her face as she turned back towards me.
“What a nice unexpected turn of the tide this cool and misty Imbolc morning.” She took my hand. “I’m Ledeir. The trees have indeed heard my whispers.”