The road that led to Treegap had been trod out long before by a herd of
cows who were, to say the least, relaxed. It wandered along in curves
and easy angles, swayed off and up in a pleasant tangent to the top of a
small hill, ambled down again between fringes of bee-hung clover, and
then cut sidewise across a meadow. Here its edges blurred. It widened
and seemed to pause, suggesting tranquil bovine picnics: slow chewing
and thoughtful contemplation of the infinite. And then it went on again
and came at last to the wood. But on reaching the shadows of the first
trees, it veered sharply, swung out in a wide arc as if, for the first
time, it had reason to think where it was going, and passed around.
On the other side of the wood, the sense of easiness dissolved. The road
no longer belonged to the cows. It became, instead, and rather abruptly,
the property of people. And all at once the sun was uncomfortably hot,
the dust oppressive, and the meager grass along its edges somewhat
ragged and forlorn. On the left stood the first house, a square and
solid cottage with a touch-me-not appearance, surrounded by grass cut
painfully to the quick and enclosed by a capable iron fence some four
feet high which clearly said, "Move on—we don't want you
here." So the road went humbly by and made its way, past cottages more
and more frequent but less and less forbidding, into the village. But
the village doesn't matter, except for the jailhouse and the gallows.
The first house only is important; the first house, the road, and the
There was something strange about the wood. If the look of the first
house suggested that you'd better pass it by, so did the look of the
wood, but for quite a different reason. The house was so proud of itself
that you wanted to make a lot of noise as you passed, and maybe even
throw a rock or two. But the wood had a sleeping, otherworld appearance
that made you want to speak in whispers. This, at least, is what the
cows must have thought: "Let it keep its peace; we won't disturb it."
Whether the people felt that way about the wood or not is difficult to
say. There were some, perhaps, who did. But for the most part the people
followed the road around the wood because that was the way it led. There
was no road through the wood. And anyway, for the people, there
was another reason to leave the wood to itself: it belonged to the
Fosters, the owners of the touch-me-not cottage, and was therefore
private property in spite of the fact that it lay outside the fence and
was perfectly accessible.
The ownership of land is an odd thing when you come to think of it. How
deep, after all, can it go? If a person owns a piece of land, does he
own it all the way down, in ever narrowing dimensions, till it meets all
other pieces at the center of the earth? Or does ownership consist only
of a thin crust under which the friendly worms have never heard of
In any case, the wood, being on top—except, of course, for its
roots—was owned bud and bough by the Fosters in the touch-me-not
cottage, and if they never went there, if they never wandered in among
the trees, well, that was their affair. Winnie, the only child of the
house, never went there, though she sometimes stood inside the fence,
carelessly banging a stick against the iron bars, and looked at it. But
she had never been curious about it. Nothing ever seems interesting when
it belongs to you—only when it doesn't.
And what is interesting, anyway, about a slim few acres of trees? There
will be a dimness shot through with bars of sunlight, a great many
squirrels and birds, a deep, damp mattress of leaves on the ground, and
all the other things just as familiar if not so pleasant—things
like spiders, thorns, and grubs.
In the end, however, it was the cows who were responsible for the wood's
isolation, and the cows, through some wisdom they were not wise enough
to know that they possessed, were very wise indeed. If they had made
their road through the wood instead of around it, then the people would
have followed the road. The people would have noticed the giant ash tree
at the center of the wood, and then, in time, they'd have noticed the
little spring bubbling up among its roots in spite of the pebbles piled
there to conceal it. And that would have been a disaster so immense that
this weary old earth, owned or not to its fiery core, would have
trembled on its axis like a beetle on a pin.
And so, at dawn, that day in the first week of August, Mae Tuck woke up
and lay for a while beaming at the cobwebs on the ceiling. At last she
said aloud, "The boys'll be home tomorrow!"
Mae's husband, on his back beside her, did not stir. He was still
asleep, and the melancholy creases that folded his daytime face were
smoothed and slack. He snored gently, and for a moment the corners of
his mouth turned upward in a smile. Tuck almost never smiled except in
Mae sat up in bed and looked at him tolerantly. "The boys'll be home
tomorrow," she said again, a little more loudly.
Tuck twitched and the smile vanished. He opened his eyes. "Why'd you
have to wake me up?" he sighed. "I was having that dream again, the good
one where we're all in heaven and never heard of Treegap."
Mae sat there frowning, a great potato of a woman with a round, sensible
face and calm brown eyes. "It's no use having that dream," she said.
"Nothing's going to change."
"You tell me that every day," said Tuck, turning away from her onto his
side. "Anyways, I can't help what I dream."
"Maybe not," said Mae. "But, all the same, you should've got used to
things by now."
Tuck groaned. "I'm going back to sleep," he said.
"Not me," said Mae. "I'm going to take the horse and go down to the wood
to meet them."
"The boys, Tuck! Our sons. I'm going to ride down to meet them."
"Better not do that," said Tuck.
"I know," said Mae, "but I just can't wait to see them. Anyways, it's
ten years since I went to Treegap. No one'll remember me. I'll ride in
at sunset, just to the wood. I won't go into the village. But, even if
someone did see me, they won't remember. They never did before, now, did
"Suit yourself, then," said Tuck into his pillow. "I'm going back to
Mae Tuck climbed out of bed and began to dress: three petticoats, a
rusty brown skirt with one enormous pocket, an old cotton jacket, and a
knitted shawl which she pinned across her bosom with a tarnished metal
brooch. The sounds of her dressing were so familiar to Tuck that he
could say, without opening his eyes, "You don't need that shawl in the
middle of the summer."
Mae ignored this observation. Instead, she said, "Will you be all right?
We won't get back till late tomorrow."
Tuck rolled over and made a rueful face at her. "What in the world could
possibly happen to me?"
"That's so," said Mae. "I keep forgetting."
"I don't," said Tuck. "Have a nice time." And in a moment he was
Mae sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on a pair of short leather
boots so thin and soft with age it was a wonder they held together. Then
she stood and took from the washstand beside the bed a little
square-shaped object, a music box painted with roses and lilies of the
valley. It was the one pretty thing she owned and she never went
anywhere without it. Her fingers strayed to the winding key on its
bottom, but glancing at the sleeping Tuck, she shook her head, gave the
little box a pat, and dropped it into her pocket. Then, last of all, she
pulled down over her ears a blue straw hat with a drooping, exhausted
But, before she put on the hat, she brushed her gray-brown hair and
wound it into a bun at the back of her neck. She did this quickly and
skillfully without a single glance in the mirror. Mae Tuck didn't need a
mirror, though she had one propped up on the washstand. She knew very
well what she would see in it; her reflection had long since ceased to
interest her. For Mae Tuck, and her husband, and Miles and Jesse, too,
had all looked exactly the same for eighty-seven years.
At noon of that same day in the first week of August, Winnie Foster sat
on the bristly grass just inside the fence and said to the large toad
who was squatting a few yards away across the road, "I will, though.
You'll see. Maybe even first thing tomorrow, while everyone's still
It was hard to know whether the toad was listening or not. Certainly,
Winnie had given it good reason to ignore her. She had come out to the
fence, very cross, very near the boiling point on a day that was itself
near to boiling, and had noticed the toad at once. It was the only
living thing in sight except for a stationary cloud of hysterical gnats
suspended in the heat above the road. Winnie had found some pebbles at
the base of the fence and, for lack of any other way to show how she
felt, had flung one at the toad. It missed altogether, as she'd fully
intended it should, but she made a game of it anyway, tossing pebbles at
such an angle that they passed through the gnat cloud on their way to
the toad. The gnats were too frantic to notice these intrusions,
however, and since every pebble missed its final mark, the toad
continued to squat and grimace without so much as a twitch. Possibly it
felt resentful. Or perhaps it was only asleep. In either case, it gave
her not a glance when at last she ran out of pebbles and sat down to
tell it her troubles.
"Look here, toad," she said, thrusting her arms through the bars of the
fence and plucking at the weeds on the other side. "I don't think I can
stand it much longer."
At this moment a window at the front of the cottage was flung open and a
thin voice—her grandmother's—piped, "Winifred! Don't sit on
that dirty grass. You'll stain your boots and stockings."
And another, firmer voice—her mother's—added, "Come in now,
Winnie. Right away. You'll get heat stroke out there on a day like this.
And your lunch is ready."
"See?" said Winnie to the toad. "That's just what I mean. It's like that
every minute. If I had a sister or a brother, there'd be someone else
for them to watch. But, as it is, there's only me. I'm tired of being
looked at all the time. I want to be by myself for a change." She leaned
her forehead against the bars and after a short silence went on in a
thoughtful tone. "I'm not exactly sure what I'd do, you know, but
something interesting—something that's all mine. Something that
would make some kind of difference in the world. It'd be nice to have a
new name, to start with, one that's not all worn out from being called
so much. And I might even decide to have a pet. Maybe a big old toad,
like you, that I could keep in a nice cage with lots of grass, and ..."
At this the toad stirred and blinked. It gave a heave of muscles and
plopped its heavy mudball of a body a few inches farther away from her.
"I suppose you're right," said Winnie. "Then you'd be just the way I am,
now. Why should you have to be cooped up in a cage, too? It'd be better
if I could be like you, out in the open and making up my own mind. Do
you know they've hardly ever let me out of this yard all by myself? I'll
never be able to do anything important if I stay in here like this. I
expect I'd better run away." She paused and peered anxiously at the toad
to see how it would receive this staggering idea, but it showed no signs
of interest. "You think I wouldn't dare, don't you?" she said
accusingly. "I will, though. You'll see. Maybe even first thing in the
morning, while everyone's still asleep."
"Winnie!" came the firm voice from the window.
"All right! I'm coming!" she cried, exasperated, and then added
quickly, "I mean, I'll be right there, Mama." She stood up, brushing at
her legs where bits of itchy grass clung to her stockings.
The toad, as if it saw that their interview was over, stirred again,
bunched up, and bounced itself clumsily off toward the wood. Winnie
watched it go. "Hop away, toad," she called after it. "You'll see. Just
wait till morning."
At sunset of that same long day, a stranger came strolling up the road
from the village and paused at the Fosters' gate. Winnie was once again
in the yard, this time intent on catching fireflies, and at first she
didn't notice him. But, after a few moments of watching her, he called
out, "Good evening!"
He was remarkably tall and narrow, this stranger standing there. His
long chin faded off into a thin, apologetic beard, but his suit was a
jaunty yellow that seemed to glow a little in the fading light. A black
hat dangled from one hand, and as Winnie came toward him, he passed the
other through his dry, gray hair, settling it smoothly. "Well, now," he
said in a light voice. "Out for fireflies, are you?"
"Yes," said Winnie.
"A lovely thing to do on a summer evening," said the man richly. "A
lovely entertainment. I used to do it myself when I was your age. But of
course that was a long, long time ago." He laughed, gesturing in
self-deprecation with long, thin fingers. His tall body moved
continuously; a foot tapped, a shoulder twitched. And it moved in
angles, rather jerkily. But at the same time he had a kind of grace,
like a well-handled marionette. Indeed, he seemed almost to hang
suspended there in the twilight. But Winnie, though she was half
charmed, was suddenly reminded of the stiff black ribbons they had hung
on the door of the cottage for her grandfather's funeral. She frowned
and looked at the man more closely. But his smile seemed perfectly all
right, quite agreeable and friendly.
"Is this your house?" asked the man, folding his arms now and leaning
against the gate.
"Yes," said Winnie. "Do you want to see my father?"
"Perhaps. In a bit," said the man. "But I'd like to talk to you first.
Have you and your family lived here long?"
"Oh, yes," said Winnie. "We've lived here forever."
"Forever," the man echoed thoughtfully.
It was not a question, but Winnie decided to explain anyway. "Well, not
forever, of course, but as long as there've been any people here. My
grandmother was born here. She says this was all trees once, just one
big forest everywhere around, but it's mostly all cut down now. Except
for the wood."
"I see," said the man, pulling at his beard. "So of course you know
everyone, and everything that goes on."
"Well, not especially," said Winnie. "At least, I don't. Why?"
The man lifted his eyebrows. "Oh," he said, "I'm looking for someone. A
"I don't know anybody much," said Winnie, with a shrug. "But my father
might. You could ask him."
"I believe I shall," said the man. "I do believe I shall."
At this moment the cottage door opened, and in the lamp glow that
spilled across the grass, Winnie's grandmother appeared. "Winifred? Who
are you talking to out there?"
"It's a man, Granny," she called back. "He says he's looking for
"What's that?" said the old woman. She picked up her skirts and came
down the path to the gate. "What did you say he wants?"
The man on the other side of the fence bowed slightly. "Good evening,
madam," he said. "How delightful to see you looking so fit."
"And why shouldn't I be fit?" she retorted, peering at him through the
fading light. His yellow suit seemed to surprise her, and she squinted
suspiciously. "We haven't met, that I can recall. Who are you? Who are
you looking for?"
The man answered neither of these questions. Instead, he said, "This
young lady tells me you've lived here for a long time, so I thought you
would probably know everyone who comes and goes."
The old woman shook her head. "I don't know everyone," she said,
"nor do I want to. And I don't stand outside in the dark discussing such
a thing with strangers. Neither does Winifred. So ..."
And then she paused. For, through the twilight sounds of crickets and
sighing trees, a faint, surprising wisp of music came floating to them,
and all three turned toward it, toward the wood. It was a tinkling
little melody, and in a few moments it stopped.
"My stars!" said Winnie's grandmother, her eyes round. "I do believe
it's come again, after all these years!" She pressed her wrinkled hands
together, forgetting the man in the yellow suit. "Did you hear that,
Winifred? That's it! That's the elf music I told you about. Why, it's
been ages since I heard it last. And this is the first time you've
ever heard it, isn't it? Wait till we tell your father!" And she
seized Winnie's hand and turned to go back into the cottage.
Excerpted from "Tuck Everlasting" by Natalie Babbit. Copyright © 2013 by Natalie Babbit. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.