Editor’s Note: Walter Donway’s romantic thriller O Human Child is an entertaining read with an end of summer theme. Jan and Victoria DeVries began what they hoped would be the summer of their lives with their two kids in the Catskill Mountains. A delightful farm with horses, a pond, and a garden at the foot of the dark, gorge-cut, myth-haunted mountains. Everything seemed perfect – even the wildly beautiful, secretive, but seductive Ashlyn Tate at the vineyard next door. But, abruptly, on a serene July afternoon, the enchanted mountains reached out to ensnare both parents and children in heart-stopping terror, broken marriage vows, missing kids, and lurking violence from an ancient, unspeakable past. Suddenly, the battle is against forces humans cannot face alone. And even Jan and Victoria's marriage seems ripped apart by uncontainable passions, frightened secrecy, and a tense triangle of three strong, beautiful women. By the end of summer, nothing – and no one – is the same. The following excerpt is from chapter 4. O Human Child is part of The Writers Series, our highly popular feature that showcases the work of contemporary novelists influenced by Ayn Rand.
“Summer’s a-coming, summer bright,
Fields are calling the live-long day.
Don’t you hear the fields a-calling –
And all the children run away?” – Wight Alberich
“Can he sleep in the barn?”
“Who?” demanded Betsy. She was scraping up a last forkful of egg.
“Quiet, I’m asking your Dad.”
Jan said, “It’s not so much if we’ll let him…” “I know,” said Victoria, “I know. Why does he have to sleep in a barn?”
Promptly at 8:00 that morning, Warren Magellan had rapped on the door. He came into the kitchen to the breakfast table, removing his hat, bowing slightly. Victoria introduced him to Betsy and Jan, and, as he ate, he talked only of when Victoria ought to plant—already pretty late for peas, the patch a bit small for corn. Stick with tomatoes, summer squash, head lettuce, radish, definitely cucumber.
As soon as he finished his coffee, he rose, tipped his hat, and hurried out.
“He seems shy,” said Betsy. “He’s funny. Like a munchkin.”
Victoria stopped halfway between the stove and table. She frowned and said, slowly, “Well, yesterday he was a neighbor, saying ‘hello.’ Today, he’s a hired hand. He thinks he has to act differently, I guess.”
Betsy pushed aside her plate. “I think I’ll go over to Allie’s.”
“No,” said Victoria quickly. “Not every day, all day. Take Freddy, this morning. I have things to do."
“Oh, shit, Mom! Allie was going to show me the wine press and stuff.”
“Did you say, ‘Oh, shit’?”
“Sorry, sorry. I’ll take Freddy.”
“Good, and do the dishes.”
Betsy’s tone was the equivalent of an exaggerated rolling back of her eyes. “Okay, Mom.”
“Doesn’t Allie have chores?”
“I have no idea, Mom.” In a few minutes, when Victoria went to see if Warren had gotten started all right, Betsy came with Freddy. Heading out for the day, Jan also stopped to talk. Warren already had turned over a few rows, the wet earth glinting in the sun, and, as Jan talked, he kept working, breathing a little hard, now. But when Victoria arrived, then Betsy, who put down Freddy and watched him hasten to the new-turned earth, reaching out with his fist, Warren leaned on the spade and turned to them.
“That’s an enchanting child,” he said, nodding. He looked at Victoria. “You said you’ve met the Tates, ma’am—Vicki?”
“Oh, right away! Allie first.”
“The daughter saw him?” Warren nodded toward Freddy.
“Oh, she sure did!
“And what did she say?”
Victoria began, “Well, like you, she said he was beautiful.” Victoria hesitated, “And then I guess she said he was ‘different’—same as you said, really. Why, Warren?”
“Well, she’s very grown up, in some ways. In her talk. But she’s strange—willful, you know.” He positioned his foot on the spade and gave a little jump, using his weight to drive it in. It seemed to punctuate the conversation.
“Well, I’m off,” said Jan. “I’m going to find the lake, today. They say the brook that feeds it has a waterfall.”
Warren lifted an arm, pointing to the road that passed the house. “Take the fire road. It’s on your left about a quarter mile down this paved road. That takes you to another dirt road around the lake—part way around. Follow that left and you hit the brook. Waterfall’s three-hundred yards back. Pretty place. Wild, with ledges, spruces, big mossy rocks.”
“Perfect! That’s left onto the fire road, left on the lake road, and follow the brook back into the woods.”
Warren smiled, eyes shining. “Kind of place Fenimore Cooper liked to describe when he was setting up an Indian ambush. Every rock is slippery as ice. Thought about what you’d do if you got hurt out there?”
“Cope. I always have.”
Warren shrugged. “Could let people know where you’re going. About 280,000 acres out there, in all. That’s a lot of searching. You bring matches?”
“I could make a smoky fire, sure.” “Might work. There are fire towers.” He had been spading, again, and now sweat ran down his face; with each spade full, he gave a little grunt. Jan lifted a hand in a wave and started down the driveway.
Victoria said, “Okay, Warren. You don’t have to rush, you know. It’s a hot day. You’re very reasonable, by the hour, so take your time.”
He nodded, stamping in the spade. Victoria turned to leave, then said, “Oh, I know!” and turned back. “I was going to mention that Allie’s mother, Ashlyn, won’t let her come over here. Betsy always goes there.”
Warren lifted his head to look at her. He held her gaze as he spoke, as though demanding attention. “I think that’s good. Let that be.”
“Can I walk Freddy down by the pond, Mom?”
“Sure, you know about being careful on the wharf. And not in the boat, okay?”
“Come on, Freddy! Let’s see the frogs and fish!”
“I don’t see the difference,” said Victoria, when Betsy had pointed Freddy in the direction of the pasture gate and was following him as he toddled full tilt toward it. “Is Ashlyn worried they’ll wander off or something?”
Warren fished a bandana from his leather vest and wiped his brow, then the back of his neck. He stood holding the spade and looked toward the woods. He said slowly, “Well, you live right at the edge of these woods. It’s beautiful enough when you stand here in the sun looking at it. But every sort of thing has happened in there. For centuries, I mean. It’s well to watch for your own, when you live right here at the edge.”
Victoria gave a laugh. “Warren, you aren’t giving me Catskills spooky, are you? The Headless Horseman? Magical Indian burial mounds? What are you talking about? Black bears? Rattlers?”
“They’re there, sure.”
“That’s easy to do.”
“Well, every mother has to set her standards, but I don’t see how it’s more dangerous for Allie to be over here than in her own yard.”
Warren turned back to his work. “Well,” he said, stamping down on the spade, “I’d just leave be. Watch real careful for Freddy. You’ll have a great summer.”
Victoria sighed. “Okay. I’m going back to the house. Really, don’t overdo. Come in any time for a drink and a rest. I’ll have lunch for you.”
“It’s a pleasure to work for you, Vicki. You’ve got a beautiful family.”
The conversation had annoyed her. Either there were dangers or there weren’t. She couldn’t stop herself from chiding him. She said, “But a family at the edge of a dark wood.”
Warren didn’t look up, so she walked back to the house. From the porch, she glanced to check on Betsy and Freddy. They sat at the end of the short wharf, two small figures in bright sun, dangling their feet over the side. But only Betsy’s feet reached the water.
But by mid-afternoon, Betsy had punched the time clock and dived into the dark path to Allie’s place, so Victoria had Freddy, again. She stood holding him, now, nodding approval as she surveyed the meticulously cultivated garden—no weeds, no lumps and the whole stretch raked smooth, the newly turned earth drying to light brownish-grey. A geometer, she supposed, could calculate the square footage of this idiosyncratic plot that morphed from a thin neck to a fat base, like a gourd, as it snaked down toward the road between the driveway on one side and the pasture fence on the other.
Warren stood beside her. “I think it’s all set,” he said.
“Where’s the best place to buy seeds and plants? I want to start right away.”
“Oh, I’d say Swenson’s, in Haines Falls. I’d offer to pick up things, but you’ll want to look—always interesting to see everything, especially the herbs. And I don’t have anything to drive.”
“You walk everywhere?”
“Mostly. There are buses. I can hitch. But mostly walk. I take shortcuts through the woods.” He gestured at the forest that passed along the rear of the property and beyond, in either direction, as far as they could see. “They call it a ‘wilderness,’ but its cut by fire roads, hiking trails, logging roads, and trapping lines—some a hundred years old. I can find my way through to most anywhere since I’ve tramped there for years—hunted and fished, too.”
“I’ll take Betsy and Freddy—and Jan, if he’ll go—and pick up what I need tomorrow. Can you help me plant?”
“Sure,” he said, but he was looking at the barn.
“Oh, I forgot,” said Victoria. “You asked about the barn.”
“It isn’t necessary…”
“It seems so rough! You don’t have a place?”
“I’d sleep in the woods, otherwise. Which is fine most of the year.”
“Oh! Well, have dinner with us, use the bathroom, the shower, and sure, sleep in the barn. You have blankets?”
“I’ll get my roll from the woods.”
So that was that, thought Victoria. And speaking of dinner, what was it? She was wondering if she should wait for Betsy or fetch her right now for the drive to town, but then she saw what looked like Betsy and Allie coming across the meadow from the woods. They were still 50 yards away behind the stonewall. Immediately, she felt herself getting angry. What was this crap? Allie couldn’t spend time with Betsy in the yard, but she and Betsy could go off into the woods without even telling Victoria? Unconsciously, she made fists and put them on her hips, and waiting, the outline of a lecture taking shape in her mind.
She saw Allie separate from Betsy when they were half-way across the meadow. Allie's obvious intention was to cut through the woods to her yard, not waiting to reach Victoria and the usual path. Then, Betsy was at the stonewall, a smile on her face, her arm raised with something shining.
Victoria grinned. Well, that was the dinner problem solved! Betsy held up a stick that was threaded through the gills of three big trout. When Betsy had climbed over the wall and come closer, Victoria saw two rainbows and a brown—almost fresh enough to be dripping water. Did that change anything?
“Great!” said Victoria with enthusiasm that she both felt--because fresh trout were a rare treat—and deemed warranted by this tour de force in hunting and gathering. She said, “Bring’em in! Let’s clean 'em! And you can explain to me why you went into the woods without even telling me—and what Allie’s mom thinks of that.”
She added, lowering her voice to a whisper, “Freddy looks like he might drop off. I’m going to leave him in his playpen.”
Betsy nodded a silent agreement and Victoria held the screen door open as Betsy carried through her trophies. While Victoria was sliding out the big cutting board and running the best-looking knife over the steeler, Betsy let go with a blast of enthusiasm. “Mom! Allie caught those trout, not me! It was amazing!”
“She’s got to show me that stream, then!” said Victoria, still postponing the lecture. “What bait did she use?”
Betsy spoke with a kind of awe. “Mom! Her bare hands!”
Victoria was shaking her head even before she started to speak. “Betsy, what did you two actually do? Only bears catch trout with their paws. You didn’t steal these from a black bear did you?” That gave her another thought. “Did a fisherman give them to you?” Now that was a worrisome possibility—two pretty, nubile girls… “Or some boys?”
Betsy’s words were uttered with a martyred patience. “Mom. Allie caught them. Bare hands. Get it?”
Victoria had begun gutting. At least trout didn’t have scales. She said, “Come watch. You next.” She wasn’t going to keep arguing, but she wasn’t going to pretend to buy the bare hands tale, so they could laugh at her.
“Oh, God!” said Betsy. “Blood and guts! No!” She turned away.
“Don’t be the girl who can’t touch a worm. Women have done every sort of thing. Frontier women skinned and dressed deer. They killed and plucked chickens and they caught newborn horses coming out of the mother’s body and then cut the umbilical cord.”
“Hurray for them!”
“Here, I’ll hold the fish. Take the knife, stick the point in the vent—that’s the hole back there—and slice straight up toward the head. Then you can reached in and pull out the guts. Do it!”
Betsy made a ghastly face, but did it—tentatively, at first, then more decisively. When it came to the guts, she tried to gouge them out with the knife blade, but finally shut her eyes, reached in, made an indescribable noise, and pulled out the mess. The fins were easier, and they left the head and tail. As she stood at the sink, washing the trout under cold water, she actually chatted. “Allie walked along a brook, sort of on tiptoe? She kept saying, ‘don’t cast a shadow on the water.’ We came to a deep spot—wide spot—and she waved me back. She crept up to the bank. Mom, it was amazing! She waited! I didn’t see her arm move. I just heard a splash and the fish came flying out of the water and plopped on the bank. She pounced on it before it could flip back in. Mom, she did! Six times!”
“Okay, I just can’t quite picture that, okay? But I am surprised at you. You knew you should ask about the woods. What am I supposed to think?”
Surprisingly, Betsy said, “I know that you’re right, Mom. I did know I should ask. Do you know what happened?”
Victoria waited, looking at her. “I was at Allie’s, and she said, ‘Mom and Dad are busy with a guy looking around the vineyard and sampling wines. It takes hours. Let’s go in the woods. We can catch trout.'”
Victoria nodded, still waiting.
“Mom, I asked her if it was okay and she said, ‘Sure, I told you they’re busy. Let’s go.’ I said I should ask you, but she said, ‘Then we won’t have time!’”
Victoria said: “In other words, Allie said she was going to sneak and talked you into sneaking, too!” She waited for the excuses. She noticed she had crossed her arms over her chest. She uncrossed them; she wanted Betsy to open up.
“I guess I did know. I just went.” Betsy said, frowning, “Allie makes me want to do things.”
“Well just ask, so I can keep trusting you. Allie’s mom doesn't trust her to come here—now, maybe you know why. But I trusted you to go there. So keep the faith, huh?”
“I will, Mom.” The three trout rested glistening on the cutting board, which itself had been rinsed and dried. Victoria reflected that her own mother would have rolled the fish in white floor and fried them. What an idea! She was going to broil them using olive oil and rosemary—with maybe a pat of butter at the end.
Suddenly, she looked up. “Oh, God! We’ve been here almost an hour! Freddy is sleeping like Rip van Winkle!” She already was heading for the door. Betsy scraped back her chair and followed.
As she was opening the screen door, Victoria turned back to Betsy. “I’m going to wake him or he won’t sleep tonight.”
Then, she turned back to the playpen.
But Freddy was gone.