The Magic Mound

by Frank Thomas Smith

Chapter 1

The Vacation House

It had rained the night before and the unpaved road had turned to reddish mud. After they reached the top of a hill and started down the other side, the minivan slipped on a curve and the back wheels got stuck in a ditch on the side of the road. Zeca drove back and forth in a rocking motion trying to free the wheels, but they only spun and sank deeper into the mud. Luckily a farmer from a nearby ranch happened to pass by with a tractor and pulled them out. It was great fun for the children, for it was part of the adventure of vacation. They were on their way to a house in the country which belonged to one of dona Ute's many friends.

Sergio, Divino and the others lived in a favela, the Brazilian word for slum, in the great city of Sao Paulo. They were very poor and lived in one-room shacks without running water or electricity. The bright light in their lives was Dona Ute, who ran a school in the favela called the escolinha, which means little school. When Sergio's and Divino's mother died, dona Ute took them into her own house and gave them good food and decent clothes. Zeca, a young man from the favela who had also lived with Dona Ute when he was a child, now worked as her assistant. None of the children had ever been out of Sao Paulo before in their lives.

When they set out the hills were wreathed in morning mist, but as the day advanced the sun burned off the mist and the round hills above them became visible.

As they rounded a curve, Divino spotted a small sign on the side of the rode: VENDE-SE UM SITIO, which means Land for Sale. It was almost hidden by mud and bushes, so they were lucky that Divino had such sharp eyes, for it was the sign they were looking for. Zeca stopped the minivan.

"There should be a path here leading down to the house," he said.

They looked at Dona Ute, who shrugged. "Let's look for it then. If there is one we'll surely find it."

They piled out of the minivan and began looking for the path. The side of the road on which the sign stood was overgrown with vegetation. They stood on tip-toe trying to look over this natural wall. Divino was too small to even try that, so he got down on his hands and knees and soon found an opening which he crawled through.

"I found it! I found it!" he shouted. But when they looked they couldn't find him.

"Where are you, Divino?" Sergio shouted.

"Here!" They looked down and saw Divino's head poke out from under the tangled branches. "The path is here on the other side. You must crawl under. Come on!"

So they all knelt down and crawled through the opening in the bushes. On the other side a narrow path led down the side of the hill and curved out of sight.

"Dona Paula said the house is about a mile from the road," dona Ute said, "but she didn't say we'd have to walk."

"Probably she doesn't know the path is blocked," Zeca said.

"That's possible, she hasn't been here in years," Dona Ute agreed. "Well, it's a good thing we started out early. Let's unload the van and go down there."

They unloaded their things and Zeca left the van parked as close to the side of the road as possible so other cars could pass, though very few used it. Dona Ute divided the supplies among them and they started down the steep path with the hot sun now directly overhead. It was hard going and they were soon dripping with sweat. The children didn't mind though. They laughed hard at Zeca's jokes, which weren't very funny, but he was. "I always wondered what it would be like to be a mule," he said, and imitated a mule braying.

Finally they saw what looked like a toy house nestled in the valley below in the curve of a stream. Divino saw it first: "There is it, a funny little house," he cried.

Dona Ute said it wasn't so little, it just looked that way because they were still far away and it would get bigger as they got closer. When they arrived the children were surprised to see how big it really was. It was made of rough mortared stones and had a chimney on the roof. All the windows were tightly shuttered. Dona Ute took a huge key from her shoulder-bag and everyone laughed. Divino said it must have belonged to a giant, but Dona Ute explained that old houses often had large locks which required large keys. The lock was rusty and she had trouble opening it. Zeca offered to try and after much exertion he managed to turn the key in the lock. He pushed and the old wooden door swung open, braying like the mule he had tried to imitate.

Inside it was musty and dusty. Dona Ute said they must open all the windows and clean up before doing anything else. The windows had no panes, but they did have screens to keep out insects, which are large and numerous in Brazil. She sent Sergio out to collect the firewood they would need for cooking. Divino asked if he could go along and help. Dona Ute said all right, but he should keep close to his brother. She told them to bring some wood for the fireplace as well, as it would get cool at night.

"Don't go far and don't get lost," Dona Ute called after them as they ran towards the forest.