Near the little village of Treegap, there is a wood with an "otherworld[ly]" appearance, owned by the Fosters, who live in the "touch-me-not cottage" at its edge. There is no road running through the wood, so no one knows about the giant ash tree whose roots nearly conceal a fresh water spring at its center; this spring has the potential to create an "immense disaster."
One evening in August 1881, eleven-year-old Winnie Foster is chasing fireflies out in her yard, when a strange man dressed in a "jaunty yellow suit" stops by. The man says that he is looking for someone. He seems intrigued when Winnie informs him that the Fosters have lived in that place "as long as there've been any people [there]." Winnie's grandmother comes out, and when the man turns to her, a "tinkling little melody" emanates from the wood. Winnie suggests that the tune is coming from a music box, but her grandmother insists that it is being made by elves. When the old woman excitedly hustles her granddaughter into the house, the mysterious man, alone now, regards the wood thoughtfully, then disappears down the road, ominously whistling the haunting tune that faintly lingers in the darkness.
The next morning, Winnie is again out in the yard, railing against the stifling controls placed upon her by her family. She considers running away but, lacking the resolve, decides instead to venture at least into the adjoining wood, where she has never been allowed. As she walks through the luxurious foliage, Winnie comes upon an enormous tree in a clearing. Sitting by the tree is a handsome young man, to whom she "los[es] her heart at once." Winnie watches as the man sips from a small spring that rises from the ground, then she steps forward and asks him for a drink. The man, who introduces himself as Jesse Tuck, worriedly tries to convince Winnie that it would be "just terrible" if she were to taste the water. As Winnie points out that Jesse has just taken some himself, another young man and a big, "comfortable-looking" woman appear, leading an old horse. The pair are Jesse's older brother Miles, and his mother, Mae Tuck. When Mae sees Winnie there, she says resignedly:
Well, boys...here it is. The worst is happening at last.
Before Winnie even has time to think, she is lifted onto the horse and is transported through the wood, while Mae, Miles, and Jesse run alongside, pleading with her not to be scared. At the edge of the wood, they encounter the man in the yellow suit, but Winnie is so bewildered, she does not call out for help. Awhile later, Mae decides it is time to stop, and Winnie, understandably overwhelmed, begins to cry. Her obvious distress disturbs the Tucks greatly, and Mae distractedly reaches into her pocket, pulling out a little music box and winding the key. When the melody begins, Winnie is comforted. She recognizes it as the strain that she, her grandmother, and the man in the yellow suit had heard coming from the wood in Treegap the evening before.
As they have promised, the Tucks now tell Winnie the reason for their precipitous flight; it is a story beyond belief. Eighty-seven years earlier, the Tucks had been passing through the wood adjoining Treegap and had stopped at the spring to get a drink. Everyone in their party had had some of the water, even the horse, but, significantly, not the cat. In the following years, the Tucks had slowly become aware that something strange was happening to them. Jesse, for example, had fallen onto his head from a tree and was not hurt at all; the horse had been shot by some hunters, but the bullets had gone through him without leaving a mark. Although the cat had died since the family had left Treegap, the rest of them, in addition to apparently being indestructible, did not seem to be getting any older. The Tucks, then, had happened to pass through Treegap again, and had remembered the spring where they had once stopped to drink. The tree by the spring, on which Tuck had carved a "T," had not grown at all, and the "T" looked as if it had been carved yesterday.
The Tucks had concluded that the spring had somehow made them immortal. They at first had experienced a tremendous euphoria. After thinking about the situation, however, they had decided that it could be a very dangerous thing if word about the water's powers were spread. To their knowledge, Winnie is the only other person who knows about the magic spring, and the Tucks are kidnapping her to give themselves a chance to convince her of the importance of keeping their "big, dangerous secret." Although Winnie is not sure that she believes the Tucks' story, she senses that they mean her no harm. Jesse sings and dances during the remainder of the trip, making Winnie laugh, and everyone is having so much fun that they do not notice that the man in the yellow suit has been following them, and has heard the whole story.
At long last, the group arrives at the Tucks' cottage, a "plain, homely little house" nestled in the forest next to a pond. They are greeted at the door by Tuck, a big man with a "sad face and baggy trousers," who regards Winnie lovingly, and says that she is "the finest thing that's happened [to them] in...at least eighty years." Winnie, who is accustomed to scrupulous cleanliness in her own home, is at first taken aback by the amiable disorder of the Tucks' abode. She soon adjusts, however, and begins to appreciate the comfort of the "charm[ing]...disarray." Mae explains to Winnie that Miles and Jesse are away most of the time, living their separate lives, but every ten years, during the first week of August, they meet at the spring and come home together, so the Tucks can be "a family again for a little while."
After supper that evening, Tuck takes Winnie rowing out on the pond. It is almost sunset, and the bullfrogs are croaking as tiny insects "skitter" on the surface of the water. The scene is idyllic, and Tuck asks Winnie to observe the living things all around them. He explains that everything is part of a circle of life, "always growing and changing, and always moving on." Although immortality had seemed like an amazing gift at first, Tuck now realizes that he and his family have been shut out from the natural process of life. Because of this, they are not really living. His fondest wish is to be allowed once again to experience growth and change, even if it means that at the end of everything, they will die.
Tuck believes that if people knew about the magic water, they would instinctively do anything to get it, and by the...
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