In many ways Aubin Tupper was a lonely child, with no children nearby he thought of as friends. Living out in the country with his parents and little brother, he had homeschooled since grade two—it hadn't taken him long to find out that the public school nearest wasn't for him. He didn't hate learning, more the opposite of that, but so many noisy children and frustrated teachers got tiring after a while. He was a quiet, timid, scared little mouse that recoiled whenever someone approached.
Aubin had had a love of nature and animals since he was born and a tendency to take refuge in make-believe worlds. He learned to read quickly and was soon consuming thick novels at a teenager's level. He had a vivid, active imagination and often slipped into it, forgetting everything except the goings-on inside his head.
Since Mr. Tupper was a truck driver and away much of the time, the homeschooling rested in his wife's hands. She did a good job, and soon Aubin and his brother, Forrest, were academically ahead of most kids their age.
When Aubin was ten and Forrest was five, their family moved to a different acreage, this one bigger, beside a lake. In the midst of a scattered farming community, there was a school within walking distance, which the boys would hopefully attend and make friends at.
To any stranger meeting Aubin he would appear mysterious, different and would probably provoke their curiosity. It was impossible to forget his appearance—wavy, red-gold hair tossed about by the wind; wide, thoughtful, clear, blue eyes and a fine-boned, small, yet strong and healthy figure, which resembled a deer when he sprinted across open fields. His physical being hid his personality; which surfaced only when he was alone, in nature.
Aubin was rarely seen without Forrest, a mischievous little boy always running off and needing to be found. He was the best friend Aubin had.
That is, the best human friend. When the Tuppers moved to their new home they brought with them the rest of the family: Annie (Mrs. Tupper's horse), Jake (Forrest's pony) and Guthrie (Aubin's beloved black gelding); Whiskers—his companion of a gerbil—and Dan and Baily, two sleek, gray housecats. And of course Fifi, the family's frisky border collie.
Without those animals, Aubin would have felt as if without friends. His wanting for human friends was very small, as he didn't want to risk anything. Because he was shy, and afraid, he thought other boys would make fun of him.
* * *
As he and Forrest stepped out of the van that bright day in August, one when you can just smell summer on the air, his first impression was that he'd love it there. He'd loved their old place as well, and missed it after three hours of driving, but this new home looked captivating. Raspberry bushes drooped heavily over the walk, their berries full and ripe, all the way up to a large green farmhouse. The paint on the house was peeling but Mr. Tupper had said they'd give it a new coat once they moved in, and other than that it appeared well taken care of It even looked as though people were already living in it; Aubin's parents had moved everything in the past week-even a flower pot on the steps sprayed cheer across the yard.
The yard itself was quite simple; a few shrubs had been planted here and there and a rickety; old toolshed overlooked a garden, bare except for a few overgrown perennials. Behind that a forest sprung up, which Aubin knew was hiding a stable with the horses already settled in, and a pasture beyond that. To the left patches of rippling blue water through the trees caught his eyes-the lake. Right away, he knew it was home.
"Why don't you two munchkins go and explore?" suggested Mr. Tupper, as his sons stared around, wide-eyed. "The stable is just down that path to the right of that shed."
Eagerly, Aubin nodded and grabbed his brother's hand. Together they raced off, Aubin's thick auburn and Forrest's wheat-colored blond hair blowing in the breeze, their feet thudding in a steady rhythm before slowing as they entered the trees.
Aubin was glad to see that the stable was in good repair and was more or less the right size for three horses; he cared deeply about the well-being of animals. Unbolting the door he stepped inside, Forrest close behind him. Three roomy stalls faced him, a horse in each.
"Guthrie," sighed Aubin contentedly, stepping toward his horse. Guthrie snorted softly as Aubin stroked his velvety black muzzle. "Good to see you again, boy. Those folks took good care of you." He spoke with ease, and kindly, his gift with animals apparent. He loved all three horses so well-tall, high-spirited Annie with the fine chestnut coat, short and round little Jake with the sweetest temperament possible, and of course his own adored Guthrie, black as night, free as the wind.
As he leaned against his horse, Aubin prayed inwardly that none of their new neighbors would take interest in the Tuppers, that the world would just leave them alone. That his life would remain separate from everyone else's.
* * *
After eating lunch in their new, bright kitchen, Aubin wanted to go for a ride right away.
"I was planning to go swimming, in the lake," said his father. "You could come."
"No, thank you." Aubin's heart was set on Guthrie.
"I wanna go!" exclaimed Forrest.
"Sounds good," smiled Mrs. Tupper, a horse-lover herself. "I'm too busy today to ride Annie, but you can take Forrest, Aubin. I've checked the trails and they seem fine."
Later, as they groomed their horses, Forrest begged to ride Guthrie with Aubin.
"Jake's puny," he complained. Aubin smiled a little. "OK, but promise me you'll ride him tomorrow."
"I will," sighed Forrest. "But they'll all get exercise anyway today when Mom turns them out."
Aubin ignored him. "We'll ride to the lake," he announced, placing a large, supple Western saddle on Guthrie's back.
Five minutes later they set off, Aubin holding onto the reins in one hand and Forrest with the other. They took the trail they knew led to the lake and settled into a trot down it. Forrest held tightly onto the saddle horn and laughed as he bounced clumsily up and down.
It was beautiful there in the woods; branches stretched grandly over the path as if bowing to the newcomers, and birds chirped cheerfully. The forest was serene and peaceful yet alive with hundreds of sounds.
After a couple of bends Aubin heard laughter ahead of them and pulled Guthrie to a halt. A second later several blurs of color whizzed into sight on bikes, screeching to a stop. The blurs of color turned out to be five rosy-cheeked children, who stared, surprised, at Aubin, Forrest and Guthrie. Aubin eyed them warily.
Three of them, two boys and a girl about Forrest's age, looked very similar, all having dark, curly brown hair and tanned skin. The other two, a girl who looked about nine and a boy a couple years younger, both had light hair, freckles, and were more than a bit sunburnt, so Aubin concluded that they were the children of two different families.
"Hello," he said nervously.
"Hi. Are you the kids who just moved in down the road?" The speaker was the older girl, who was fumbling to get a bottle of water out of her daypack.
"We . . . we are."
Questions burst forth from the group.
"Are you from the city?"
"Is that your horse?"
"Why are you riding with your little brother?"
"What's your name?"
"My name's Aubin," said Aubin, trying not to stutter. "I . . . well . . . "
"I'm Dolly Scott," said the girl who had first spoken. "This is my little brother, Lew, and those are the Carter kids—Shelby, Josh and Mamie. Lew and I are the youngest in our family, but don't worry about the rest, they've moved out. We're glad you moved in, 'cause none of us have horses anymore and we need some around here. We live just . . . "
Josh, the eldest of the Carters, perhaps eleven, broke in. "You can't talk all day, Dolly." He grinned at Aubin. "It's good to get another boy around here that's not a brat like those two. We were just going to climb our favorite tree near your house . . ."
"Dad said it was on their property, Josh," piped up the little girl, Mamie. "You told him we were just going for a ride."
"Well, we are, aren't we?" snarled Josh, as Shelby, who looked about eight, gave Mamie a push that nearly made her fall off her bike.
"You'll let us show it to you, though, won't you?" coaxed Dolly. "You couldn't have found it yet."
"But, Aubin, we're riding," whined Forrest, turning and speaking quietly in his ear.
"Um . . ." began Aubin. "Maybe you should show us when we're done riding." He spoke softly, unconvincingly.
"Sure," agreed Josh. "In about an hour?"
"See you then," said Dolly. "Oh, and can we use it while you're out?"
"Uh . . . use what?"
"The tree, stupid!"
As they rode off toward the lake, bewilderment kept distracting Aubin. If these kids appreciated trees and horses, they were like him . . . but they were so confident and sure of themselves that he felt even shyer than usual. Were all other kids like that?
When Aubin and Forrest arrived back at their new home Mrs. Tupper made Forrest take a nap, so Aubin waited for the Carters and Scotts by the stable on the soft, mossy ground free of bouncy five-year-olds. Fifi was there, though, chasing birds and squirrels here and there, so Aubin teased the dog, letting his fears evaporate as he communicated with the animal better than he thought he'd ever be able to with a person.
Josh, Dolly, Shelby, Mamie and Lew surprised him by bursting from the woods behind the stable.
"C'mon, Aubin, the tree is this way!"
Slowly, Aubin got to his feet and followed them, his precious dog at his heels. He was very good at darting around trees and leaping over fallen logs, probably better than the others, so when he made up his mind to run, he did, and was close behind the kids and their laughter. Had he been alone, he would have stopped to examine the flowers or watch chipmunks skitter about energetically, but today he was being taken somewhere, dragged along by a rambunctious bunch of children. And the funny thing was, he didn't know if he could call them friends.
"There!" panted Shelby triumphantly, stopping to rest. "It's through there." Aubin looked, and his mouth fell open in amazement.
Not far away, through a cluster of young trees, the forest ended. Through there was a meadow, with tall, gently-waving grasses in varying shades and brightly-colored flowers. Farther still were more trees, a brilliantly blue summer sky hanging over them.
But all Aubin really saw was the tree.
It was huge, a lush, majestic maple. From a tall, sturdy trunk it branched into thick arms, with many, many slender limbs sprouting from them. Even though the vision was divided by trees, Aubin could see many knots and flat spaces perfect for climbing, sitting or even lying upon. But what made it so beautiful was the light.
Inside the woods, the sun's delicate fingers filtered through gaps in the canopy, or streamed down through larger spaces. As the trees became sparser, the patterns of light and shadow transformed into wide patches of light and thin, fork-like shadows, until the trees ended and the full impact of the light filled the meadow. The light alone made it look like paradise was waiting beyond those trees.
It took Aubin's breath away, the most beautiful sight he had ever set eyes on. Unable to think, having forgotten the others were there, joy surged within him and his body responded. Swift as a fox, agile as a deer, he sprang through the remaining forest, his heart as light as air. Wonder danced before his eyes and his heart.
Without knowing what he was doing, Aubin burst from the woods, sailing into the dazzling new light. Moments later he was there, at the tree.
And then he had found a knot to pull himself up with, and grabbed hold of a branch, quickly and smoothly climbing that tree. Racing the wind, he went from branch to branch, until they were thin and bending under his weight. The most glorious sensation overcame him as he stopped, balancing in the tree. He felt free. Now, if he wanted to, he could fly.
The sound of pounding feet below him made him remember where he was, and he started in surprise, his head jerking down. Grabbing hold of another branch to steady himself, he stared down at Fifi, alert at the base of the tree, and at five wide-eyed children gaping up at him. He felt exposed and stupid, his heart sinking, as the glory drained from him. In the few seconds of silence that followed, Aubin bit his lip so hard it began to bleed. "What do you think you are doing?" demanded Josh harshly, crossing his arms.
"What . . . what do you mean?" Aubin's voice wavered, and as the wind made the tree sway he shivered, suddenly cold. Hadn't they wanted to show him the tree?
"This is our tree!" Dolly called. "It might be on your family's new land but it's always been ours."
"It's close enough to Farmer Thorn's place, anyway," declared Shelby stoutly.
Aubin glanced through the fluttering leaves level with his face and saw a bubbling creek, bending off into the woods. "Where's . . . his . . . ?"
"That's the divider," spat Dolly sourly. "That creek. But it didn't used to be. Mr. Thorn used to own all of your place, a long time ago."
"This is our tree!" shrieked Mamie shrilly.
"Get down from our tree," bellowed Josh.
Unwillingly, Aubin sniffed, his chest tight. He wanted to bawl, but he couldn't because of the taunting faces below.
"I mustn't bend down to them," he muttered to himself through gritted teeth. "I mustn't cry."
Fifi, sensing Aubin's feelings and the threats of the other children, began to bark. Josh picked up a stone and sent it spinning toward the dog.
Gasping, Aubin nearly fell out of the tree. "Don't touch my dog!" he yelled, just as Lew protested, "Don't hurt the poor puppy."
For Aubin, one thing could give him strength: fear. His terror that they'd harm his dog drowned out any other worries, lending him courage.
He was down out of that tree in three seconds, he never knew how, he just was. Lunging toward Josh, he pushed him to the ground, then stood back, horrified that he'd done that.
But he recovered quickly; pulling his dog to his side, his eyes smoldering with a sudden fury—a sort of loathing.
"How dare you!" he shouted. "Hurt my dog! Threaten me just because you're jealous! I don't know why we ever came to this place, with such mean kids as you. "He didn't realize he was crying. "You're wrong. All wrong! This isn't your tree, it's nature's, belonging to . . . to everybody. If you were nice kids I'd want you to come to it, even though I'm shy and . . . and scared of people." As he wailed those words he realized they were true. "Play in the tree, even if you're all wrong, and . . . and I'll let you be!"
He ran blindly back into the woods, tears stinging his face. He was so confused and didn't know why. He ran until he reached the stable, then flung himself at Guthrie's neck, sobbing hysterically; the horse neighed understandingly and Fifi made soft, whimpering noises of sympathy. Aubin cried with them until he was ready to face his other family. Then, because his eyes were red and his face stained, he sneaked to the bathroom and splashed his face. Moments later he joined his family for supper, and didn't speak a word of the tree or what had happened to anyone.
* * *
The next few days were the most miserable days Aubin had ever lived. Mr. Tupper left again for two weeks. It rained, or rather poured, and although he would usually enjoy this weather, nothing could make Aubin feel better. He found solace in the wind and rain, dancing wildly around on the wet grass, feeling good, cold water run down his face, which mingled with his tears.
Aubin avoided Forrest, who was usually his companion, and hardly spoke to anyone except his animal family—especially the cats, who always helped, the rain, the wind and the enormous gray sky. Though he spent lots of time in the woods in his rainboots and raincoat, he never set foot near the tree.
After three days, the rain stopped. Just like that. Heavy rainclouds were swallowed up by a bright forget-me-not sky; and the sun appeared, warming everything. Finally; Aubin felt a little better. It was as if he'd been crying like the rain for the past few days, and now, like the rain, was all cried out. He was left with that fresh, open feeling that met him when he ran out of doors that morning, greeted by dripping, flowering tulips and fresh, squishy ground.
That was when he heard it: voices. Laughter, drifting through the trees. He felt a bitter anger rise within him. They were playing at the tree, where he ought to be.
"Who's that?" inquired Forrest from behind him, making Aubin jump.
"I don't know," lied Aubin, mustering his strength. "Wait here and I'll go see. Fifi, come!" The border collie loped happily across the yard to meet him. "How come you always take Fifi, and not me?" complained Forrest, but they were gone.
Only minutes later, Aubin and his dog arrived at the meadow. Peering out from behind a tree, he could see five children in the old maple, laughing and trying to push each other down. Even little Mamie was perched high on a branch.
Suddenly, Fifi ran from the woods at the children, barking loudly. Obviously; she remembered them.
Before Aubin could do anything, he heard Josh say delightedly, "Hey; it's the crybaby's dog! What does she think she's doing here?"
"Don't touch her!" Aubin leapt from his hiding spot and dashed to the base of the tree. Grabbing hold of Fifi's collar he said, "She'll never hurt you. She's just trying to protect me."
"Protect you!" spluttered Josh. "Is that what she's for, to protect the crybaby? Well, she doesn't look like much of a guard dog to me!"
"She could herd you all into a corner and hold you there for hours!" burst out Aubin fiercely, before he could stop himself.
"Yeah, Josh, shut up," said Dolly quietly. "You're just being mean. This is Aubin's tree and we shouldn't be here."
Josh glared at her contemptuously, but didn't say anything.
"Dolly's right," Mamie spoke up timidly. "You're being mean to him, Joshie."
"Girls," muttered Josh angrily. He looked from Shelby to Lew, as if expecting them to laugh or scorn at Dolly and Mamie. But Lew stared back solemnly and Shelby met his older brother's gaze stonily.
"Oh, for crying out loud!" yelled Josh. "The world's full of babies!" He jumped from the tree to the ground and hurried off into the forest, muttering under his breath. The remaining four Carters/Scotts stared at Aubin and Aubin looked back at them.
At last Dolly put in, "Sorry about that, and everything else."
"That's OK," answered Aubin, relieved. Lew climbed down from his branch and approached Fifi warily. Fifi was a smart dog. She licked him square in the face. The rest of them giggled hesitantly, looking around at each other nervously.
"Josh'll wake up sooner or later," Shelby assured Aubin confidently. "You should see him cry. You're no crybaby compared to him."
"I cry," murmured Lew for no apparent reason as he patted Fifi.
"Who doesn't?" asked Dolly lightly. She paused. "C'mon, guys, let's play a game. Who can climb this tree the fastest?"
"Aubin can," responded Shelby with certainty. "Give us something else, Dolly."
Aubin felt happiness rise like a bubble inside of him. He knew, without asking, that all five of his new acquaintances would be his friends, even Josh. They were all just people, fighting problems and shortcomings, and he knew they'd eventually get along. Although he was sensitive, although his real comrades would always be animals, it felt good to know some kids who, despite their rowdiness, were very like Aubin inside. Maybe he'd even give school another try.
"I know something we can do," he said bravely, a smile spreading across his face. "There are three horses, not far from here, eager to be ridden. I say we . . . "
Everyone's face lit up.
"Let's go!" cried Mamie.
As they leapt and sprang through the forest, laughing, the reawakening wildlife drew Aubin Tupper's attention. Birds sang, flowers reopened, and the rich, dark soil soaked up the moisture for the young maple saplings. It seemed as though all over, life was presenting Aubin with one hundred new possibilities, to last for years to come.