From Bridge to Terabithia, chapter six,
“The Coming of Prince Terrien”
Christmas was almost a month away, but at Jess’s house the girls were already obsessed with it. The year Ellie and Brenda both had boyfriends at the consolidated high school and them problem of what to give them and what to expect from them was cause of endless speculation and fights. Fights, because as usual, their mother was complaining that there was hardly enough money to give the little girls something from Santa Claus, let alone a surplus to buy record albums or shirts for a pair of boys she’d never set eyes on.
“What are you giving your girl friend, Jess?” Brenda screwed up her face in that ugly way she had. He tried to ignore her. He was reading one of Leslie’s books, and the adventures of an assistant pig keeper were far more important to him than Brenda’s sauce.
“Don’t you know, Brenda?” Ellie joined in. “Jess ain’t got no girl friend.”
“Well, you’re right for once. Nobody with any sense would call that stick a girl.” Brenda pushed her face right into his and grinned the word “girl” through her big painted lips. Something huge and hot swelled up inside of him, and if he hadn’t jumped out of the chair and walked away, he would have smacked her.
He tried to figure out later what had made him so angry. Partly, of course, it made him furious that anyone as dumb as Brenda could make fun of Leslie. Lord, it hurt his guts to realize that it was Brenda who was his blood sister, and that really, from anyone else’s point of view, he and Leslie were not related at all. Maybe, he thought, I was a foundling, like in the stories. Way back when the creek had water in it, I came floating down it in a wicker basket waterproofed with pitch. May dad found me and brought me here because he’d always wanted a son and just had stupid daughters. My real parents and brothers and sisters live far away—father away than West Virginia or even Ohio. Somewhere I have a family who have rooms filled with nothing but books and who still grieve for their baby who was stolen.
He shook himself back to the source of his anger. He was angry, too, because it would soon be Christmas and he had nothing to give Leslie. It was not that she would expect something expensive; it was that he needed to give her something as much as he needed to eat when he was hungry.
He thought about making her a book of his drawings. He even stole paper and crayons from school to do it with. But nothing he drew seemed good enough, and he would end up scrawling across the half-finished page and poking it into the stove to burn up.
By the last week of school before the holiday, he was growing desperate. There was no one he could ask for help or advice. His dad had told him he would give him a dollar for each member of the family, but even if he cheated on the family presents, there was no way he could get from that enough to buy Leslie anything worth giving her. Besides, May Belle had her heart set on a Barbie doll, and he had already promised to pool his money with Ellie and Brenda for that. Then the price had gone up, and he found he would have to go over into every one else’s dollar to make up the full amount for May Belle. Somehow this year May Belle needed something special. She was always moping around. He and Leslie couldn’t include her in their activities, but that was hard to explain to someone like May Belle. Why didn’t she play with Joyce Ann? He couldn’t be expected to entertain her all the time. Still—still, she ought to have the Barbie.
So there was no money, and he seemed paralyzed in his efforts to make anything for Leslie. She wouldn’t be like Brenda or Ellie. She wouldn’t laugh at him no matter what he gave her. But for his own sake he had to give her something that he could be proud of.
If he had he money, he’d buy her a TV. One of those tiny Japanese ones that she could keep in her own room without bothering Judy and Bill. It didn’t seem fair with all their money that they’d gotten rid of the TV. It wasn’t as if Leslie would watch the way Brenda did—with her mouth open and her eyes bulging like a goldfish, hour after hour. But every once in a while, a person liked to watch. At least if she had one, it would be one less thing for the kids at school to sneer about. But, of course, there was no way that he could buy her a TV. It was pretty stupid of him even to think about it.
Lord, he was stupid. He gazed miserably out the window of the school bus. It was a wonder someone like Leslie would even give him the time of day. It was because there was no one else. If she had found anyone else at that dumb school—he was so stupid he had almost gone straight past the sign without catching on. But something in a corner of his head clicked, and he jumped up, pushing past Leslie and May Belle.
“See you later,” he mumbled, and shoved his way up the aisle through pair after pair of sprawling legs.
“Lemme off here, Miz Prentice, will you?”
“This ain’t your stop.”
“Gotta do an errand for my mother,” he lied.
“’Long as you don’t get me in trouble.” She eased the brakes.
He swung off the bus before it had really stopped and ran back toward the sign.
“Puppies,” it said. “Free.”
Jess told Leslie to meet him at the castle stronghold on Christmas Eve afternoon. The rest of the family had gone to the Millsburg Plaza for last-minute shopping, but he stayed behind. The dog was a little brown-and-black thing with great brown eyes. Jess stole a ribbon from Brenda’s drawer, and hurried across the field and down the hill with the puppy squirming in his arms. Before he got to the creek bed, it had licked his face raw and sent a stream down his jacket front, but he couldn’t be mad. He tucked it tightly under his arm and swung across the creek as gently as he could. He could have walked through the gully. It would have been easier, but he couldn’t escape the feeling that one must enter Terabithia only by the prescribed entrance. He couldn’t let the puppy break the rules. It might mean bad luck for both of them.
At the stronghold he tied the ribbon around the puppy’s neck, laughing as it backed out of the loop and chewed at the end of the ribbon. It was a clever, lively little thing—a present Jess could be proud of.
There was no mistaking the delight in Leslie’s eyes. She dropped to her knees on the cold ground, picked the puppy up, and held it close to her face.
“Watch it,” Jess cautioned. “It sprays worse’n a water pistol.”
Leslie moved it out a little way. “Is it male or female?”
Once in a rare while there was something he could teach Leslie. “Boy,” he said happily.
“Then we’ll name him Prince Terrien and make him the guardian of Terabithia.”
She put the puppy down and got to her feet.
“Where you going?”
“To the grove of the pines,” she answered. “This is a time of greatest joy.”
Later that afternoon Leslie gave Jess his present. It was a box of watercolors with twenty-four tubes of color and three brushes and a heavy pad of art paper.
“Lord,” he said. “Thank you.” He tried to think of a better way to say it, but he couldn’t. “Thank you,” he repeated.
“It’s not a great present like yours,” she said humbly, “but I hope you’ll like it.”
He wanted to tell her how proud and good she made him feel, that the rest of Christmas didn’t matter because today had been so good, but the words he needed weren’t there.
Katherine Paterson (b. 1932)
It seems appropriate somehow to follow the shortest post of the season with the longest, at approximately 1,300 words. It's totally worth it, though. Bridge to Terabithia is one of my favorite books, one that I've read countless times and never fails to move me.
A movie version of Bridge to Terabithia is coming out early next year, and while you might think I'd be excited about that, I must confess that I'm very nervous about it. I remember how excited I was to learn that Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was being made into a movie, and how angry I was when I saw The Secret of NIMH and found it to be a big steaming pile of crap. I'm still kind of pissed about it, to tell the truth. I have reason to be cautiously optimistic about this new version of Bridge to Terabithia; it's produced by Walden Media, which in recent years has released several fine adaptations of classic children's novels (Holes and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I hear Charlotte's Web is good too), and one of the screenwriters is David Paterson, who has several deeply personal reasons for wanting the movie to be as good as it possibly could be (he's Katherine Paterson's son, for one thing, but also his experience of losing a close childhood friend at a very young age inspired the writing of the novel). So there's reason to hope. But I'm still worried that it'll be The Secret of NIMH all over again.
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