Penny and Primrose went out together, in their respectable coats and laced shoes, on to the terrace. The terrace appeared to them to be vast, and was indeed extensive. It was covered with a fine layer of damp gravel, stained here and there bright green, or invaded by mosses. Beyond it was a stone balustrade, with a staircase leading down to a lawn, which that morning had a quicksilver sheen on the lengthening grass. It was flanked by long flower-beds, full of overblown annuals and damp clumps of stalks. A gardener would have noticed the beginnings of neglect, but these were urban little girls, and they noticed the jungly mass of wet stems, and the wet, vegetable smell. Across the lawn, which seemed considerably vaster than the vast terrace, was a sculpted yew hedge, with many twigs and shoots out of place and ruffled. In the middle of the hedge was a wicket-gate, and beyond the gate were trees, woodland, a forest, the little girls said to themselves.
"Lets go into the forest," said Penny, as though the sentence was required of her.
Primrose hesitated. Most of the other children were running up and down the terrace, scuffing their shoes in the gravel. Some boys were kicking a ball on the grass. The sun came right out, full from behind a hazy cloud, and the trees suddenly looked both gleaming and secret.
"OK," said Primrose. "We neednt go far."
"No. Ive never been in a forest."
"We ought to look at it, while weve got the opportunity," said Penny.
There was a very small childone of the smallestwhose name, she told everyone, was Alys. With a y, she told those who could spell, and those who couldnt, which surely included herself. She was barely out of nappies. She was quite extraordinarily pretty, pink and white, with large pale blue eyes, and sparse little golden curls all over her head and neck, through which her pink skin could be seen. Nobody seemed to be in charge of her, no elder brother or sister. She had not quite managed to wash the tearstains from her dimpled cheeks.
She had made several attempts to attach herself to Penny and Primrose. They did not want her. They were excited about meeting and liking each other. She said now:
"Im coming too, into the forest."
"No, you arent," said Primrose.
"Youre too little, you must stay here," said Penny.
"Youll get lost," said Primrose.
"You wont get lost. Ill come with you," said the little creature, with an engaging smile, made for loving parents and grandparents.
"We dont want you, you see," said Primrose.
"Its for your own good," said Penny.
Alys went on smiling hopefully, the smile becoming more of a mask.
"It will be all right," said Alys.
"Run," said Primrose.
They ran; they ran down the steps and across the lawn, and through the gate, into the forest. They didnt look back. They were long-legged little girls, not toddlers. The trees were silent round them, holding out their branches to the sun, breathing noiselessly.
Excerpted from Little Black Book of Stories by A. S. Byatt Copyright© 2004 by A. S. Byatt. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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