If he hadn’t been looking down at the water, Tolly might have missed the passing cloud of wings entirely.
And if he hadn’t gotten to know Ping, and learned so much from him about the river, he might have mistaken them for ordinary birds. But since both of those things did (and had) happened, he recognized them as the wings of beautiful horses. He sat for the longest time, with the boat rocking beneath him gently while his eyes followed the passing herd. He wondered how they stayed hidden, who had put up the sign to keep people off their island. Somehow he felt that it wasn’t someone from Green Knowe.
At least no one he had gotten to know, although someone who hadn’t stayed might have done. Maybe there had been somebody before Ping and his friends who had loved the river, too. Looking at it now, seeing the brief reflection of velvet flanks and improbably huge wings, it seemed impossible that no one had.
He watched them for as long as he could, until they faded into the soft light of the sun beginning to rise. Then he shook his head with a faint smile, and leaned over to consult the copy of their map that Ping had made for him, before he’d had to leave. He was determined to find something new to add, before Ping was able to come back visiting.
Missing Ping hadn’t so much surprised him as it seemed... unfair, somehow. As if there were a particular fire gone out of the place, even though the ghosts drifted back in. He knew Ping had wanted to see them, too, and was a bit cross at them for not showing up, even if there had been that horrible business with Melanie. Well, cross at most of them. Maybe it would have been worse if they had shown up, maybe she’d have found a way to get at the rest of them like she had Susan.
He’d asked Granny about them, that first morning they came back. Whether she thought they’d show up for Ping, since this was his home now too. She had looked a little troubled, and told Tolly they’d have to wait and see - she never had known when they would appear, or to whom. Only that it took time.
And it had turned out that Ping wouldn’t have that much time here, even though it was for the best of reasons.
When Ping’s father first arrived, and his own, everything had seemed wonderful. They’d all talked and talked, so full of goodwill and the fierce joy of a reunited family that it quite swept the memory of the summer’s horrible business out of their minds at first. Without at all needing to discuss it, none of the three found it in them to mention any of it when it did recur.
Though Granny had mentioned, when she and the boys found themselves the earliest risers in the house the next morning, that she suspected Ping’s father of knowing more than he was letting on; and it was no end of delight to herself and Tolly both that they’d seen in the eyes of Ping’s father the same knowing glint they’d come to recognize in Ping’s.
For his part, Ping had just smiled exactly that smile, and shook his head as he passed the jam.
Drifting in his thoughts, Tolly found that he’d begun drifting along the river as well, and that wouldn’t do at all. Pleasant as it was to drift , he was on a mission, and he couldn’t get it done if he didn’t know where he’d been.
Finding that he hadn’t gotten past the next lock was a bit of a relief in the circumstances, though the lock key had been fairly difficult to manage by himself. He supposed briefly that it was getting older that made it possible, but that he didn’t care to consider in much detail. Right now he was still a boy, exploring the river, and in all probability he would be again, someday. Susan and Jacob had come back, after all.
Although, it occurred to him, he’d never seen any of the others outside of the house and the garden. Maybe it was something tied to the house itself? Ping might actually know, if Tolly could remember to ask when he visited. Ping always knew more than he let on, maybe because he was so quiet most of the time, and actually paying attention, whereas Tolly knew he sometimes missed things. Like that snake he’d just passed, curled up at the river’s edge in a sun patch. Was it is his imagination that it was larger than usual, and watching him as he went? Or was it a perfectly ordinary snake and he’d just missed it?
Well. He supposed pulling around to the other side of the island might be one way to find out. Laughing at himself a little, he set to it and let his thoughts drift back again. No sense in fighting your own nature, after all.
He missed things a bit, or else he just didn’t think them through, like mocking Green Noah when he’d first come home. Ping had given him such a look for that one, part admiration and part.. well, he supposed Ping thought he should have armed himself for the battle. It would have been one, for Ping - it was amazing to Tolly that someone that quiet and well mannered could be so utterly fierce. For Ping, it would have been an epic battle, and he’d have prepared himself with prayers and talismans and probably set fire to the thing himself.
...after figuring out to do it without setting fire to the whole garden. Tolly could never imagine Ping wanting to harm the garden, even if they had somehow traded places so Ping had come here first. Which thought led to him wondering if Ping would’ve met Jacob first, and what they would have thought of each other.
That might be something to try, when they came back to visit. Ping’s father had promised they would, after seeing how attached he’d gotten to Green Knowe. It had been his home, however briefly, the first one Ping had had since he thought he lost his whole family. It would be cruel not to come back, and Tolly comforted himself as he climbed out of the boat and on to the shore that he hadn’t sensed a bit of cruelty in Ping’s father.
Now where was that snake... and why were there apple trees here? “Suppose I’ll have to call it Eden island, even if I can’t find the snake.” He said to himself softly, as he walked around the first one and discovered the next. It was like someone had abandoned an orchard. Maybe this bit hadn’t been an island in the past? Tolly picked an apple as he passed through, and thought it tasted a bit suspiciously of ...pear? Definitely not the usual apple taste, but apples were weird anyway.
He looked at a bit suspiciously before shrugging and continuing to eat as he made his way to the other side. There was a feeling in the back of his mind that if he tried to take Ping here when he came back, the island might not be there. But they’d find out, he was sure of that. Meanwhile there was a big green snake that he wanted to find, because it was just occurring to him that it hadn’t seemed a bit creepy the way her snakes had.
Except when he came out to the water’s edge, it wasn’t green. It was a big black snake, with a kind of glittery look to its scales that reminded him of fish, a bit. Or car oil slicks. “Hello, there.” Tolly whispered, feeling a bit silly. But he talked to Feste, so... “Weren’t you green before?”
He could’ve sworn it responded, that the long ripple passing through the coils down the length of its body was a shrug.
Still feeling just a bit ridiculous, Tolly continued, “Mind if I sit for a minute? Bit exhausting, trying to row yourself around islands and manage lock keys alone.” No shrug this time, but a general feeling of it being alright, he thought? He tried it anyway, gingerly sitting down not too close to what was, after all, a bloody huge snake. It shifted a bit again, and he was admiring the oil sheen of the scales when he supposed he must have drifted to sleep.
The sun hadn’t moved much, but he was lying flat out when he came to, and the snake was gone. So was his apple core, and for a moment as he got up he thought the trees might not be there when he turned around, though they were. He grinned as he started making his way back to the boat. It wasn’t a very dramatic adventure, but he definitely had something to add to the map for Ping.