Christine was ten years old. She lived in the middle of a big forest. Her dad was a lumberjack. She lived with her parents at the end of a road full of ruts that filled with mud when it rained. It took two hours by bike, much longer on foot, to get to the village. It was rare that someone would pass by.
One day, while she was playing on the swing, she thought she could make out the sound of a car motor. She ran to the edge of the road and saw an all-terrain vehicle go by. Two men in their fifties waved to our friend. She returned their wave.
Where were they going? she wondered. After a few miles, the thoroughfare ended at the intersection of the three roads.
At the end of the day, the all-terrain vehicle went by again. But the little girl was no longer there to greet them. She only heard the purring of the motor.
At nightfall, Christine was sitting and waiting in her bed for a visit from her owl, Chachou. Since she was three she'd called him that, from the time she'd saved his life. He came every evening, settling on our little friend's windowsill to chat with her.
Christine had the extraordinary gift of being able to talk to animals and to understand what they said in return. Chachou had taught her how to use this gift. Thus every evening, they had a little conversation, exchanging the latest forest news.
When the owl landed on the window ledge, our friend told him about her encounter with the two men on their way to the intersection of the three roads.
"At that place," she said, "the road divides. The way on the left is almost impossible to get through and it dies out among the pine trees. Another terrible road goes straight up until it gets to some big boulders. The way to the right goes through hills and valleys really, really far. I wonder what they are going to do there."
"Maybe they are going to visit the little wooden house," Chachou suggested.
"The little wooden house," the girl repeated. "What little wooden house?" she asked.
"The one that is on the left, along the route, very soon after the fork in the road."
"I've never seen any house or cottage there," our friend reflected. I'll go there tomorrow and check it out if my parents allow me to."
Christine didn't go to school. The village was too far away. Her mother gave her classes at home. Sometimes, she helped her father by working with him deep in the woods.
The next day, she was allowed to go out on her bike. She wore her old denim overalls and beat-up runners. Her two long braids flew in the wind.
She peddled an hour and a half along the muddy, rutted road. She managed to avoid lots of big puddles filled with rainwater from the last few days. On the puddles tiny mosquitoes danced and made her nervous.
A few times she had to go around dead branches that blocked her way.
Finally, she got to the junction of the three roads.
She took the route on the right that disappeared into hills and valleys. Soon she saw, behind a dense thicket of hawthorns in bloom, a little wooden cottage.
It looked more like a rundown cabin than a real house. Four walls made of big, uneven boards, a little roof covered in dead leaves and green moss. The only door was closed but Christine noticed two little windows on the side walls of the shack.
She laid her bike down in the tall grass and went up to one of the windows, covered in cobwebs and dust. She couldn't make out anything inside the little house.
Bit by bit, the sky was filling with big clouds. It started raining.
The girl felt the first few drops on her shoulders. She went to the back of the house and then made her way around to the other side.
Sadly, this wasn't any better. The second window was just as bad as the first one, dirty and cracked.
Our friend went back to the front of the house. The rain was falling pretty hard by now. It ran down the length of her braids and she felt it drip down her back and onto her overalls. They were getting pretty soaked. She hadn't brought a jacket.
With a little effort, she managed to get the door open and went inside to get some shelter. She couldn't make out anything inside the little wooden house. No furniture, no carpets, no curtains. Empty. Abandoned.
Christine leaned back and then let herself slide down one of the planks that made up the wall. Finally, she was sitting in the dust on the floor. She was ready to wait until the storm was over.
Just at that moment, she felt the plank she was leaning on move. Our friend turned around and sat back on her heels. She fiddled with this badly attached board until she got it to slide to the side. With a bit of poking around, she found a little hiding spot. There, she saw a brown envelope.
Dear reader, would you not also have opened it? Just as our friend, your curiosity would have been too much.
The envelope, now a little yellowed, was poorly closed. The dry glue gave way easily. Christine opened the flap. It contained three things. First, an old black and white photo showing three children. A boy who seemed to be about ten and another, a bit younger, were on either side of a little girl of about five or six years old. They all held hands. The second thing was a tiny little metal key. The third thing was a child's drawing, folded in quarters.
On this drawing, Christine could make out a little house at the foot of the page. Above the house, she saw snakes and, near them, a lion.
Even higher up, to the left, were butterflies and, to the right, fish.
Finally, right at the top of the page, there were frogs and a tree.
The tree was clearly divided into four branches.
Christine, always curious, wondered what this odd drawing could ever mean. It made her think of the steps of a plan, of a map. Why was this envelope hidden in this abandoned cabin? Who could have hidden it there - and when?
She slipped the tiny key into the pocket of her overalls, put the drawing and the photo back into the envelope, and suddenly decided to bring it all with her.
It was still raining, but not as hard. She got back on her bike and went home. Once there, she headed straight to the barn at the side of the house. Dad stored his firewood there. She easily climbed over the logs, then, hanging onto the rafters, she hoisted herself up right up under the roof into a dark corner of the barn.
There, between two beams, was our friend's hiding place. Very flexible, she squeezed between the beams and put the envelope and its contents there. She kept the key in the front bib pocket of her overalls.
The next day, Dad brought her to the forest with him to help out with his work. He chopped a few trees down and cut them up into logs.
Christine's job was to pick them up and arrange them along the path or on the trailer.
Putting a log on the fire in the living room is easy work, but carrying a few hundred of them all day long, that's another story.
Those were the days that the girl got home at night completely exhausted, dirty and with aching arms. Sometimes, her mom had to tweeze out a splinter or two that were stuck in her fingers.
But Christine was a brave girl. She liked helping her dad. Also, she knew they weren't so rich. If there were a few extra orders or a few more clients, so much the better. It was on those days that she helped her dad.
At noon, while they were sitting side by side on a fallen tree trunk eating their lunch, she asked her dad if there were a lion in the forest somewhere.
"My dear, you're ten years old. You know very well that there are no lions in our forest."
"Of course!" she exclaimed, smiling. "But is there, maybe, something that looks like a lion?"
Her dad thought for a moment.
"Yes," he said. "If you go from the crossroads and take the route on the right, after a minute you'll see a little cabin to your left."
"I found it yesterday, Dad."
"And right behind that shack is a little trail that you almost can't make out. It'll bring you to a cave. But be careful if you go there. It's crawling with snakes."
"I know that cave. I went there once to take care of my owl when he was sick." (See: Christine 15. The Owl.)
"There, if you climb up the hill and look back towards the forest, you'll see a big boulder all on its own. Look at it carefully. You'll see that it looks like a lion."
Christine was very happy. She thought at once of the child's drawing.
It was all starting to make sense. The map might lead to treasure - why not?
The next day she took her bike and went off, back into the forest. When she got to the fork in the road, she biked as far as the cabin and found the trail. It wasn't much more than an animal track. She tried to bike along it but it was impossible because of all the brambles. She had to leave her bike behind. Taking care to hide it in the tall grass, she kept going on foot.
After walking for a quarter of an hour, she came to a narrow plateau. From there, she could see the cave, the cave of snakes.
Turning around, she could make out, down below, a giant boulder all on its own. With a little imagination, she could see how it looked like the eyes and the mane of a lion.
She went down into the undergrowth and walked over towards the boulder. There was no trail. Christine made her way, stepping over tree trunks, dead branches. The brambles, nettles and all sorts of prickly plants tried to rip her old overalls a bit more even though they were already so worn.
She came to the foot of the boulder. After circling it, she tried to climb up. A few times, she had to start her climb again. But, as soon as she was perched on top of the great rock, she spied a clearing filled with flowers just a stone's throw away. Where there were flowers, there were butterflies.
The girl got down from the lion's head and continued her adventure walking through the forest. She came up to the clearing. Butterflies, by the dozens, fluttered from plant to plant. A stream crossed through the clearing. In the stream bed, she could see fish...
The hand-drawn map clearly referred to this spot. But which way should she follow the little stream? Up- or downstream? Where was the spot with the toads?
Toads live mostly in swamps, ponds or lakes, our friend remembered.
She thought she could make out some reeds uphill. Wading up the stream, she quickly found the little lake she was looking for, a body of water big enough to have a little island in the middle.
On this island a tree stood with a single trunk that then grew into four thick branches, just like in the drawing. The treasure must be on the island, near or inside the tree.
But how could she get there? Christine couldn't see any sort of boat.
She looked left and right. No one. Anyhow, nobody ever came to the forest where she lived. The weather was beautiful and it was hot. She took off her T-shirt and then her overalls. Her runners were already dirty and they were soaked. She kept them on. Her underwear too. Then she went into the water.
Soon she was up to her knees and then to her waist and almost up to her neck. Her braids floated. Our little friend shivered in the cold water. More than that, with each step, she stepped into some kind of black, sticky sludge. Mud. It really wasn't much fun. Then she felt the lake bottom start to get shallower. Good! She got to the island.
Dripping wet, she went over to the tree. She noticed a metal box sitting in the crook of the tree, right where the four branches divided.
Very carefully, she took the box down from its hiding place. But she couldn't open it. It was locked. Our friend immediately thought of the little key she'd found in the yellowed envelope in the cabin. But the key was still in the pocket of her overalls. And her overalls were back on the shore.
Christine carried the box over her head as she crossed back through the water. She got out of the dirty water, all covered in muck. Using the clear water from the stream, she tried unsuccessfully to get the sticky mud off of her.
Then, sitting against the tree to dry in the sun, she set about trying to open the box with the key.
Inside she found a beautiful doll.
It was the last thing our friend expected to find in such a place.
The doll wore a lovely red dress, with a pale yellow apron over it.
Its eyes were beautiful and it had long blond hair and pretty little hands. The doll had bare feet.
Christine didn't have a doll. Very happy with her discovery, she put it back in place, closed the box, got dressed and returned to her bike. Securing everything solidly to her carrier rack, she pedalled for home.
Just as she came up to and rushed by the little cabin, she saw an all-terrain vehicle parked a few yards away. She recognized the two men from the day before.
The two men tried to stop our friend. They cried out and waved their arms.
But Christine, warned not to speak to strangers, pedalled even more quickly and escaped. The two men tried to run after her to catch her.
Still, a child on a bike goes a lot faster than two men on foot. She started to make some distance between them, widening the gap. Her heart was pounding in her ears. She was really frightened.
The two men got into their all-terrain vehicle. A car goes faster than a bike, even on a bad road. Christine pedalled as fast as she could but, little by little, they were catching up. She wondered how she could escape them.
Hurtling along, she came to a sharp bend in the road. There were many high ferns growing at that point. Dropping her head, she charged forwards on her bike. Skidding into the ferns, she hid her bike on the ground and lay with her belly flat on the ground beside the bike.
A moment later, she heard the purring of the vehicle's motor. Slowly getting up but being careful to stay out of view, she watched the two men looking carefully left and right. They were clearly trying to find her, but without success. They continued looking, walking in the direction of our friend's house.
Christine waited a bit longer and, when she couldn't hear anything more, she got back on her bike to return home.
After riding for a while, she saw a fox sitting in the middle of the road. She recognized it right away. When he was still a little kit, she'd adopted him.
"Hello," said our friend.
"Hello," the fox responded.
"What are you doing sitting right in the middle of the road?"
"I was waiting for you. As I was going by, I saw two thieves hiding behind the trees near a car. I think they're after you."
"Good thing you told me about it," Christine thanked him. "But how can I get back home?"
"If you like, I can show you a way through the forest."
Christine got off her bike and, guiding it by the handlebars, she returned home following the fox through the woods. This is how she avoided meeting these two men.
Once she got home, she thought for a moment. There were two possibilities. Either these men dared to speak in front of her parents and they are not criminals. Or they do have bad intentions and, in that case, they won't want to stop and they'll continue on their way.
A bit later, she heard the rumbling of the motor, and the vehicle went by without stopping.
Christine hid the doll and the box in the rafters of the barn. Her plan was to come, from time to time, to play with it and to cradle it in her arms.
The next day, our friend's dad asked his daughter to go to the village to buy some felt markers that he used to tag his logs. Always happy to help out, she hopped on her bike and headed off towards the village.
Arriving there at about ten in the morning, she had a bit of a surprise, noting that the store was closed. A note was taped to the door that said: "Today we are opening at two o'clock."
"Too bad," Christine said to herself. "I'll wait here."
What she calculated was that if she returned home, she'd get there at about noon, only to have to leave again a minute later to get back to the store for two o'clock. Then she'd have to return home again. All of that would mean she'd be biking for a full eight hours that day.
She made her way over to the little playground. A few children were playing there in the sun. She played with them on the swings, the slides, and the merry-go-round.
At about noon, the other children returned home for lunch. Christine was hungry and thirsty. Not having planned to stay the whole day in the village, she hadn't brought a water bottle or anything for a picnic. And had no money on her. Dad would come and pay for the markers at the end of the week.
Our friend looked around her. She caught sight of a tap in the corner of the park. The gardener probably used it to water the flowers and plants in the park. She turned it on and, cupping her hands together, she drank some water, kneeling down on the grass.
Good. But she was still hungry. Getting back up, she headed over to the bakery. Maybe the saleswoman would trust her and let her pay later.
Unfortunately, on the way over there, she came face to face with the two men from the forest. Right away, they started to chase the little girl.
Our friend ran towards the river and followed the cement-covered bank. The riverbed was quite wide and a few boats passed along it, barges most often.
Christine ran along the towpath, the dirt road alongside a canal.
Just then, she passed by an abandoned house. How lucky! She might be able to hide there.
Out of breath, she went into the ramshackle house and stopped for a moment, looking at the floor littered with debris, cans and broken bottles. She even saw an old mouldy mattress. Unfortunately, there was no furniture or doors that she could hide behind. She went by the ruins of a chest.
Our friend climbed the steps four at a time and looked at the bedrooms upstairs. Nowhere to hide. She waited up there without moving a muscle, silently, in the hope that the thieves wouldn't come.
The two men reached the front of the house. The little girl listened to them talk.
"The little girl might be hiding in the house. Go see."
"Yeah, I'm going."
Christine heard the one called Pierre enter the ruined house. He walked over the debris.
"I'm going upstairs to see if she's hiding up there. I'm almost there."
He was coming. He was going to see her.
Christine leaned out the window in the back. What luck! There, resting along the length of the wall, was an old metal ladder. She stepped over the windowsill easily, put the ladder in place, and climbed down the rungs. Then, going across the garden overgrown by thorns, she rejoined the towpath and got herself out of there, running.
Yvan saw her.
"Pierre, come back. The girl was in the house but she's run off. Come quick. We can get her."
The endless chase started again.
She ran and ran. Her heart pounded. She sweated, again out of breath. The two men started to catch up to her. When they were getting near, our friend ran over to the riverbank and, in one leap, she jumped into the water.
"Don't do that little girl," they cried. "Come back, little girl..."
But instead of listening to them, she, of course, got away from them.
She swam in the cold water and got to the other shore. Getting out of the water, she was completely soaked from head to foot, her overalls and T-shirt clinging to her skin and her braids dripping.
She rejoined the riverside trail and ran back to the village. She went by an abandoned warehouse and turned around. The two men, after hesitating for a moment, ran towards a little bridge 500 yards away.
They too were about to cross the river.
Christine ran up to the warehouse and saw it had a large sliding door, ajar. She managed to slip into the building. It was dark and completely abandoned. The floor was littered with debris, stone blocks and glass from broken windows. There were planks left pell-mell, as well as rusty machines. A few sunbeams shone at an angle across the old building and created spots of light on the concrete.
In a corner of the warehouse, inside the building itself, was another construction, a two-storey building. Old offices, surely.
Our friend walked over to it. She entered and walked up to the second floor. There, by means of an iron ladder, she climbed onto the flat roof of the little building. In the corner, the roof of this building created a blind spot with the roof of the warehouse. Christine hoisted herself up on the platform and half-slid, half-crawled into the darkest corner. She lay down in the dust and stayed there without moving.
After a few minutes, she heard her two pursuers enter. Pierre and Yvan.
"Look Pierre. She came into the warehouse."
How did they know that? the little girl asked herself.
"I'm sure of it," repeated Yvan. "There, by the door, we can see some bits of mud that she tracked in."
Her white gym shoes were full of muck from the river and they left marks on the floor. Would they find her?
They entered the building.
"I don't see anything," said one of them. "We need a flashlight."
"Look," said the other. "There, that construction, old offices most likely. Perhaps she's hiding there."
"I'll go look," said Yvan.
"Yes, okay. I'll wait outside," said Pierre.
Yvan entered the offices, going up to the second floor, climbed a few rungs of the ladder and looked right and left on the flat roof.
"I don't think she'd be up here. It's pitch black. She's a little girl. They quickly get scared of the dark at that age."
He went back down. They left the warehouse. Christine didn't move an inch.
They think I'm chicken, she said to herself. That's better. They'll never find me like this.
After a while of not hearing anything, she got up the nerve to leave her hiding place. She climbed down and left the warehouse.
The two men were nowhere to be seen.
Christine made her way over to the village. She crossed it, a little ashamed of her filthy overalls and T-shirt, soaked and covered in mud.
After all, she'd crawled in the dirt and the dust in the warehouse. Her white gym shoes were practically black.
The village bell tower sounded two o'clock. She made her way over to the store, now open.
"Christine," said the saleswoman, surprised, "what happened to you?"
"I fell in the mud, ma'am."
"Your father phoned. He was worried because he hadn't seen you. Here are the markers. Is everything okay with you, young lady?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'm going back home now. Thanks."
She took the markers and slipped them into the pocket of her overalls.
It crossed her mind to ask for a bite to eat, but she didn't have the nerve. Getting on her bike, she started pedalling, bravely, towards her house.
At four o'clock in the afternoon, she'd almost reached home. Her head was spinning, dizzy from hunger.
From behind her, she heard the purring of a motor. She saw, without stopping her bike, Pierre and Yvan's all-terrain vehicle. Evidently, they were still after her.
Christine pedalled with all her strength and arrived at her house before them. She left her bike on the ground and ran inside.
"Dad! Mom! Quick, two thieves have been chasing me in a car. I'll tell you about it later."
Dad grabbed his hunting rifle and hurried after his daughter. When the two men saw the rifle, they did an about-face and headed to the village.
The parents of our friend phoned the police right away so they could finally arrest the men. The police promised to set up a roadblock at the entry point of the forest.
Towards the end of the day, a police car stopped in front of our friend's house. She saw two police officers and the thieves that had chased after her.
One of the officers got out, a commissioner.
"Hello. Are you Christine?" he asked.
"Yes," replied the little girl.
"Is your father home, or your mother?"
"Yes, they're both here."
The officer entered the house.
"Hello ma'am, sir. I would like to ask your daughter a few questions, if that is all right with you."
"Did I do something bad?" asked Christine.
"No, not that I know of," he said. "But did you discover, perhaps three or four days ago, a hiding place, in a little wooden house in the forest?"
The little girl looked the police officer right in the eyes. She never lied.
"And in that hiding place, perhaps you saw an envelope?"
"Ah, yes, sir."
"I bet you opened it. What did you find there?"
Our friend explained that inside there had been a photo with three children, a little key and a drawing.
"Can you show these to me?"
"Yes, I'll go get them from my father's barn."
Christine returned after a few minutes with the brown envelope, the key, the drawing, and the photo.
"Good," said the police officer, approvingly. "This key, what is it for?"
Once again, our friend was silent for a moment, looking at the commissioner. She knew she had to tell the truth and she had no intention of lying. At the same time, she didn't want to talk about the doll. It was her doll now.
"My father often tells me that if I find something in the forest, I can keep it, unless we can find out whose it is and contact the owner."
"Very true," the police officer replied. "But what was the key for?"
"It opens a box that I found on an island."
"And what was in the box?"
"I found a doll..."
"Could you bring it to me?"
"Yes," said Christine, lowering her eyes.
She went back to the barn to get it, handing it over to the officer. He put it on the table. He then signalled for his colleague to bring Pierre and Yvan, who were handcuffed. When everyone was together, the officer said:
"We will see if you two gentlemen are telling us the truth."
He took the doll, turned it onto its front. He removed its dress. There was a line of blue stitches on its back. He asked for a pair of scissors. With them, he cut the stitches and removed an ornate ring with a very beautiful stone. It sparkled. It was a diamond of great value.
"Remove the handcuffs from these men. They are speaking the truth. They are not thieves."
Our friend was flabbergasted.
"As for you two," continued the commissioner, "the time has come for you to tell your story to this young lady and to her parents."
Yvan, the older of the two, started talking.
"We didn't want to hurt you," he said. We have handled this all wrong. Please forgive us. Neither Pierre nor I have any children. We weren't trying to scare you, just to talk."
They explained then that, many years earlier, they fled their country during a time of war. At that time, Eastern Europe was under the control of a large neighbouring country.
"Our father and mother brought us into exile, with our little sister Dorotha."
In fact, these events corresponded to the Budapest uprising in Hungary, in 1956.
The two men showed her a black and white photo.
"You can see us here in the photo, ages ten and nine. Our little sister was six at the time. Our parents couldn't bring anything with them as they fled. Except the ring. A diamond of great value. Our father had given it to our mother when they married."
To stop it from being stolen as they fled the country, their mother thought of hiding the valuable stone in the body of Dortha's doll itself, without telling her. Neither the girl nor her big brothers were told about this. The parents thought it better to keep this hiding place a secret.
"Then we ended up living a whole summer in your forest, Christine," continued Yvan. "This was before you were born, or your parents either. We lived in that cabin in the middle of the forest. We lived there, hidden so no one could find a trace of our father. He was being hunted by his enemies because he had been a head of the resistance against the invaders."
Everyone listened closely to Yvan's story.
"We really became wild things, all three of us. We were poor, dressed in rags, underfed, but, despite that, happy in the middle of the forest.
"When two boys have a little sister, they sometimes like teasing her.
She wouldn't come and swim in the little lake we'd found. The water was too cold and too dirty. Pierre and I hit on the idea one day of hiding her doll somewhere on the island and drawing a map so she could find it later, forcing her to go through the muddy water herself.
"The only thing was that, the day after we'd hidden her doll, our father arrived all of a sudden at the cabin.
"'We must run. They've tracked me down. But I can get tickets for a flight. We're going to the United States.'
"We left right away and the doll stayed there, in the box on the island, in the trunk of that tree."
That's how Yvan, Pierre, Dorotha and their parents left to the United States and freedom. They lived there many years. Their father died in that country ten years ago.
"A little before her death, last December, our mother called us to her," added Pierre. "She made us promise to go and look for the ring left in the doll here. It was still in this great elm forest where you live, Christine. She wanted us to give it to Dorotha."
"As such, we've returned, my brother and I, in the forest with a rented all-terrain vehicle. When we found the cabin, it was very emotional. We remember living there that whole summer with our parents.
"But the hiding place behind the plank was empty. When we saw you, we thought that you might have discovered it, as well as the envelope. And, most likely, the doll. We were hoping to talk to you, Christine, but, without meaning to, we scared you by running after you. For that we are sincerely sorry."
"I believed my fox when he told me that you were thieves," said Christine.
Around the table, everyone understood how things had gotten out of hand and they made peace. Finally, it was time for the brothers to leave.
"We'll take the ring," said Yvan, "and we'll bring it to Dorotha."
Then he spoke to our friend.
"Do you have a doll?"
"No," said Christine, lowering her eyes.
"Then here is your first. We'll bring the ring back to our sister, but the doll stays with you, for you, as a souvenir of your adventure."
Christine thanked both of them. She never saw them again. But on that day, for the first time in her life, she had a doll. She named it Dorotha.
Translation : Andrew Gordon Middleton