New World Symphony: The Neighbor

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After school, Sempervirens loved to run through the meadows. Squirrels chattered, woodpeckers drummed old branches, the waterfall rumbled, and sparrows sang from the tall grasses. Sempervirens let the sounds wash over her. What she loved most was the feel of the air. She was a free-range kid.

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Her parents never worried. They knew many of their neighbors, and they trusted their daughter to find her way through the wild lands that wrapped around the homesteads and estates.

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Sempervirens discovered an old orchard tucked up in the hillside. Her first thought was that it was abandoned.

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But then she noticed that the trees had been lovingly tended and bore heavy crops.

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At the edge of the field below the orchard stood an enchanted-looking cottage. What witch, elf, or fairy lived here?

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Sempervirens spied her friend Jaclyn down on the lane near the road. Maybe Jaclyn knew who lived there!

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“Who lives in that little house over there?” Vi asked.

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“You mean that house behind me?” Jaclyn said. “It’s a cute little cottage, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” said Vi. “It looks enchanted.”

“You think?”

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Sempervirens began to take her route past the cottage most days. She hoped she might spy who lived there. What if it really was a witch!

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“Who lives in that house?” she asked Laurel Haas.

“I’ve been in that house!” Laurel said. “Somebody magic lives there! She’s got these special magic powers, and she draws all the kids to her!”

“What for?”

“Who knows? It’s some kind of mission. But I don’t know what yet.”

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One night, running home past the cottage, Sempervirens heard someone call her name.

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When she turned back, she saw Bridget, Jennifer’s sister.

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“Hey, Gigi!” Vi said. “Were you calling me?”

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“Yeah! What are you doing here by Magic House?”

“Oh! Just nothing,” Vi said. “Just looking. Do you know who lives there? Have you ever been?”

“Yes. But Jennifer has not,” Bridget said. “I know the lady who lives there, see?”

“And what’s she like?”

“You’ll have to see for yourself! That is, unless you’re too scaredy-cat.”

If there was one thing that Sempervirens was not, that was scaredy-cat.

“I will go right now!” she said.

So she left Bridget there on the hill and marched right down to Magic House.

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She knocked on the door.

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When she heard a low voice say, “Come in, Sempervirens Bough,” she couldn’t stop her legs! They took her away from the house and right back to the middle of the lane.

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“Come on, legs,” she said. “Stop being scaredy-cat.”

With legs stiff like mop handles, she turned and stiff-legged it back down the path, through the arch, over the doormat, through the little door! Her eyes were tightly shut against what she might find inside: skeletons? Vials of dried blood? Toads’ eyes? Fingernails? Something slimy-creepy hanging from every pillar and post?

But she smelled cinnamon and apples. And the home was warm, and music was playing–an Irish harp.

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“Hello?” she said, tentatively.

“I’m up here!” said a familiar low voice.

She followed the stairs to the second floor, and there was Jaclyn Ball!

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“Do you live here?” Vi asked.

“I do!”

“So it is, or isn’t, magic?”

“Oh, it’s magic all right! It’s enchanted!”

“I knew it!” said Vi.

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“But it’s good magic, right?” Vi asked.

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“Well, Sempervirens,” said Jaclyn, “all magic has everything in it! There’s no shadow without light, and light will always cast shadows, unless there is simply nothing there! And who wants there to be nothing there?”

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Sempervirens and Jaclyn talked for a while. Jaclyn told her about how she had come to her when she was a tiny baby in a bassinet in a meadow and had left her with an elvish blessing.

Sempervirens didn’t really understand what that meant. She thought it was special, but it was also, maybe, a little mysterious. Spooky even.

“I’m getting a little bit hungry,” Vi said after a while.

“I’ve got some sandwiches in the pantry,” Jaclyn said. “You are welcome to them! Have you ever eaten elf food before?”

Sempervirens hadn’t. Would it be OK for her?

“Oh sure! A magical girl like you can handle elf food just fine!” Jaclyn replied. “Now I wouldn’t recommend it to just any girl or boy, but I’m sure you’ll do just fine with the food. And at any rate, you wouldn’t mind spending the rest of your days as a mouse-keeper, or a tiny cricket cowboy, or a spider wrangler, now, would you?”

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Sempervirens wasn’t so sure about that, but she was very hungry. And the sandwich smelled delicious, like vanilla sunlight and mayonaise moondressing and sunflower stardust.

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Just a little bite wouldn’t hurt.

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Oh! Her mouth felt like it was getting smaller!

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Her eyes were shrinking!

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She was going to be a tiny person, after all!

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No. False alarm! Her grin was normal, her eyes were bright, she could still reach the table when she sat in the chair.

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Elf sandwiches tasted great! And she was still a girl, after all! She did feel a little extra happy inside, though. Maybe that’s the magic of elf sandwiches!

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“That was the best meal I ever had!” Sempervirens said, after her snack.

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“Delightful!” said Jaclyn. “So you have withstood the test!”

“Wait!” said Sempervirens. “This was a test?”

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“It was indeed!” said Jaclyn. “There have been several tests, actually! Would you find your way here? That was a test! Would you have the courage to come inside? That was a test! Would you be able to withstand elvish food? That was a test!”

“And what if I hadn’t?” Sempervirens asked.

“Oh!” said Jaclyn. “I shudder to think of the consequences!”

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“You mean, if I had failed, I might have ended up a toad somewhere under some old log?”

“Oh, no need to worry about what might have been!” said Jaclyn. “What matters is that here you are, Miss Sempervirens Bough!”

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It had become very late–after midnight! And Sempervirens suddenly realized that she should be getting home.

“We will go together,” said Jaclyn.

Sempervirens had to run quickly to keep up with the hobbit-elf. By the time they made it home, it was much earlier–hours before midnight, even!  And her parents hadn’t even begun to think that they might want to worry!

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“I really had an adventure!” Sempervirens laughed to herself as she sat in the kitchen. “And I withstood the tests! I guess maybe I was born for magic!”

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