Enter the Gates with Complaining

Enter the Gates with Complaining

Chapter 8

The rest of the week was miserable. The Dolor children feared what lie ahead in the forest, but hated waiting even more. Each morning, school dragged by. Each evening at home felt terrible. The kids tried to tell their parents what they planned to do, but Mrs. Dolor only cared about unpacking and cleaning, and Mr. Dolor only cared about his new job and exciting new boss. The kids saw little of Aaron those days, too. He ignored them on the bus and seemed angry still. But Saturday finally rolled over. And when it came, as important things tend to do after days and days of anxious waiting and sleepless nights—it brought just as much excitement as it did apprehension. 

The Dolor children walked out their back-porch and faced the forest. Marian carried the logbook and a backpack full of snacks and water-bottles for each of them. Esther wore her favorite rain boots because the drawing of the bridge made her wonder if it would get wet. Herbert brought his Gerber pocket-knife that his father gave him last Christmas. They felt prepared, but it wasn’t until they saw Aaron waiting under the live oak that they felt complete.

“You ready to get going?” He asked.

Marian approached him. “I’m sorry for yelling at you,” she said. 

He shrugged and smiled. “Ah, forget it,” he said. “Friends fight.” 

She grinned. 

The four children gathered under the shade of the live oak and took one last moment before entering the gate. It all felt so serious that Esther asked if they should pray. At night, Mrs. Dolor prayed with each child since before they remembered. And Mr. Dolor prayed whenever they took long trips or were about to do something scary. It always made the children feel safer, like no matter what happened, everything would be okay. Aaron didn’t understand and sneered. That’s because Aaron, who only recently had started going to church with his other set of grandparents, hadn’t yet learned about anything like prayer. He shut his eyes and remained silent while Marian prayed. The yard grew calm. A woodpecker buzzed by, chirping excitedly, and the smell of lavender and honey filled the air. 

“Alright, now that that’s over,” Aaron said. “Let’s get going and fix this mess you made.” He smirked and turned to the gate. His eyes widened, and he jumped back when he saw they were not alone. 

On the edge of the forest stood the Ghost of Ponce de León. He was glowing blue and white, and next to him stood a donkey. Esther forgot about his funny pants and started giggling behind Marian when she saw them again. 

“Hello, sir,” Marian said respectfully.

“Buenos días,” the Ghost replied. “I’m happy you are still together.” 

“Are you going to let us in?” Marian asked.

“That depends on why you are entering.”

“We don’t want any more monsters to come out,” Marian answered. 

“And we want to get the others monsters back in,” Esther added. 

The Ghost smiled and nodded. “In order for all to be made right, you must shut the gate. And to shut the gate, you must reach the Fountain. Do you understand that nothing else will do?”

The children nodded. 

“Will you come with us?” Herbert asked.

“Not in the sense you had hoped, Herbert. I’ll be nearby though and waiting at the end.” The Ghost looked at the donkey next to him. “Balaam will help you on your journey—Won’t you, Balaam?” 

“I suppose if I have to,” the donkey muttered. 

I’ve never heard a donkey speak before, and I’m fairly confident you have not either. Just as you would imagine, hearing a rusty, bored voice come out of the lips of a donkey left the Dolor children and Aaron speechless. 

“It’s not too often I get to help human kids,” Balaam said flatly. 

“You’re a—you’re a talking donkey.” Marian’s mouth fell open. 

“And you’re a talking delinquent,” the donkey replied. 

“Balaam is good for burdens and knows the forest well,” Ponce de León explained. “He can help you on your journey.”

“That’s what we get?” Aaron asked spitefully. “You’re a supernatural being and you give us a donkey!? That’s all we get?”

“I’m afraid so,” the Ghost said, smiling. 

The blue shimmer around the ghost faded, and in a moment nothing remained in the air but fluttering fairies and golden dust. The kids marveled at the sight of the little winged creatures dancing over them. 

Esther giggled as a pixie fluttered toward her and landed on her shoulder. The little fairy curtsied and smiled. She stood no taller than Esther’s index finger and wore a dress made from moss and bark. A little hat, made from Sandhill Crane feathers and wrapped in fox hair, rested between her delicate, pointy ears. On her back, the transparent yellow wings fluttered in the air, like she needed to keep flapping them even while standing still. 

Just as Esther felt like she had gained a new friend, the little fairy flitted away. The rest of the pixies joined her, scattering over a footpath at the entry of the gate and disappearing on the other side of a pine copse.

“Well, that’s our cue,” Balaam the Donkey said. “Better time than never to get started going nowhere.” 

The path led the children and donkey through a thicket. Great pines lined the path like skyscrapers. Their needles made the forest bed soft and pleasant to walk on, and the smell lifted their spirits. Powerful oaks reached their hands between the pines, and their fingers shaded the path, making the hike easy. The children, convincing themselves that the forest would remain this way, wondered if they would return before lunch. 

But soon the path led uphill, the oaks disappeared, and with them the shade. All that remained was the occasional palm and thicket. The hot sun beat on their backs and loose sand sloshed underfoot. Hiking in sand is unpleasant. It gets in your shoes, and you never know if your next step will be as unbalanced as the last. 

Rabbits thumped their warnings on the ground before racing away from the approaching gang. Gopher tortoises hissed from their dens as the children passed. Cicadas screeched at one another in syncopated monotony. An osprey chirped a half mile away. The wind swept through the canopy and brushed the leaves against one another. With each step, the children disappeared into a world without people. 

Balaam seemed to complain about most everything and never remembered where they were going. The children presumed he lived in this forest, and thought it strange that he despised it so vehemently. He would say things like: “I always hated crossing sand,” and “why haven’t they made a road here, yet,” but he never explained who he meant by “they”, and the children suspected he didn’t know either.

Every few hundred yards, he asked the children to remind him of what they were doing. Repeating themselves again and again was a chore, but his raspy, quiet voice reminded them of Mr. Dolor’s father, so that made up for it. Granddaddy had always taken them fishing in the spring and gave them fond memories to think back on while hiking. 

Balaam’s whining made Aaron’s arrogance more tolerable. He acted as if he knew everything, saying things like, “That’s coquina rock—Do you know the difference between a hawk and an eagle?—Those are deer tracks, not hog tracks—If you walk along that felled tree, you’re likely to see a rattlesnake”. The Dolors spent most of their time enjoying the look of forests instead of studying them, so they never took the time to learn if what he said was true or not. Regardless, it felt obnoxious. 

The uphill climb leveled out, and coquina and limestone strengthened the soil. Balaam turned to the right, and the group approached a ravine that towered over a small river, thirty feet below. 

“Weeper’s Run,” Balaam said. “This is as far south as I’ve ever been before today. Legend says the river was formed by the tears of our ancestors. But I can’t imagine they would need to give them up more than us.” 

Esther stepped to the edge of the cliff and gazed down. She loved the feeling of her heart racing and the look of the world from far above. On the far side, the sheer wall of rough coquina rose as high as they were, and at the bottom, the black river ran. Red clay markings and drawings were on the face of the far cliff, and she imagined prehistoric people leaving them before the river wore down the rock and created the chasm.

“Don’t get left behind, Ess!” Marian hollered. Esther turned around and realized the group had gained thirty paces without her. She raced ahead to meet them.

“Hey donkey,” Aaron said. “What did you mean when you said you haven’t gone this far south? You mean you don’t know where you are going?”

“My name is Balaam,” the donkey replied. “And it all depends on what we are looking for—what are we looking for again?”

“A bridge, a swamp, and a fountain,” Marian responded.

“I thought you were supposed to be leading us,” Aaron complained.

“Ah yes, see, that is the funny thing about leading,” Balaam replied. “—More often than not you are actually following.”

“Balaam,” Marian said sweetly. “If you gave us an idea, we could decide whether we should rest and eat or not.” 

Balaam stopped walking and grunted (the donkey way of sighing in frustration). “I suppose resting is never a bad idea,” he said. “Though I wouldn’t be surprised if the food gets raided by ants and swallowpedes.”

“What are swallowpedes?” Herbert asked. 

“You’ve never heard of them?” Balaam asked. “Great big worms that crawl out of the wet soil at night and eat your leftovers.”

“I’ve never heard of ‘em,” Aaron crossed his arms. “Sounds made up.”

“I’m sure ‘never hearing about something’ is the prerequisite for all things not known,” Balaam replied. “Though I wonder if that proves it to be ‘made up’.”

“Well, it’s not night,” Esther said. “And there’s no wet soil around here.”

“It’s a good time to stop,” Marian decided. “C’mon. I made sandwiches and snack baggies for everyone. Aaron, I didn’t know for certain you would be here. So you can share mine.”

Marian rationed the food out and split her peanut-butter and jelly sandwich with Aaron. He acted like he didn’t care, but secretly was famished. Herbert gave a bit of his food to him as well. The kids ate a good meal and there were no ants or swallowpedes, nearby.

“I’m sure they will be at our next stop,” Balaam said. 

The journey led them to a rocky decline, heading southeast. Boulders and sand formed a path downward. Marian and Aaron used tree roots jutting out the side of the rock to stabilize their descent. But Herbert and Esther felt uneasy about it, so Balaam let them climb on his back to feel safer. “I never liked much comfort anyway,” he complained. It was a friendly gesture, but Herbert sat incorrectly on him and experienced the terrible feeling of creeping off the back of the donkey while facing down a cliff side. Each movement up and over boulders brought with it the fear of falling off Balaam’s back and tumbling down the ravine. 

“You alright?” Esther asked him.

“Yeah,” Herbert lied. “Just wish this donkey were a little bit bigger for the two of us.”

“Are you saying you wished I was fat?” Balaam gawked.

Esther giggled, and Herbert slunk his head between his shoulders.

The party reached the bottom of the ravine. The air felt dense and moist and they didn’t hear anything but the buzz of mosquitoes flying close to their ears. 

“What are we looking for?” Balaam asked.

A bridge!” Aaron hollered. 

“Oh, right, just up ahead and around the bend.”

The children followed Balaam as he took them through a grove of thin water oaks. The ground became muddy, covered in oak and maple leaves, and they heard moving water. Their shoes sunk deep into the soil and they felt water slush between their toes. All but Esther, who had her rain boots. 

She raced ahead of the group, only glancing back once before venturing around a pass in the brush. She wanted to find the bridge first. 

The mud flung up behind her, slapping the back of her legs as she sprinted through the swampy terrain. Twice, she nearly tripped, but corrected her footing on the ground, held loosely together by cypress roots. The trees bristled in the wind, a starling chirped overhead, and all the while the sound of water grew louder and louder. She shoved a philodendron out of her way and saw an enormous stone white bridge in the distance. 

“It’s here! It’s here!” She shouted back, but the group was too far away to hear her. The ground rose, growing thick and tough. Stonework came from underneath the black, oily soil and arched upward, some twenty-five feet, over Weeper’s Run she saw from the top of the ravine. The river looked much wider and faster up close, and its black cold water made her wonder about its depth and unknown creatures inside.

The bridge was made of the same stone Aaron kept describing at the top of the hill. “Coquina,” Esther said to herself. The white, porous rock gave the design a once elegant appearance, but its dilapidation left only a few stone balustrades as reminders of its past glory. They scattered along the sides for her to lean against. The rough stone against her palms, and black river rushing below.

“That’d be a nasty dip for a little girl to take alone in the woods,” a voice said.

She jumped round and recognized the man from the library with his ugly crooked fingers grasping an old cane. His top-hat shaded his eyes, but she felt him staring through her.

“What are you doing here?” she asked. Esther never liked to greet people angrily, and she rarely spoke as such to her elders. But Mr. Dauer brought out the most spiteful voice she could muster. Though to be honest, it still sounded rather sweet. 

“Oh hello, Esther,” Mr. Dauer replied. He lifted his hand to shake hers. She didn’t want to take it for two reasons. One: she didn’t trust Mr. Dauer and being so close to the edge of the bridge frightened her, and two: his hand was covered in dust and dirt and looked icky. 

“How did you get in to the forest?” She asked.

“I can go wherever I need to. In fact, I came from this forest a long, long time ago.” He lowered his hand and looked up at the canopy. “It’s nice to be home.” Something strange happened to Mr. Dauer. A chill or spasm went down his spine and his head jerked to the side wildly. It looked painful, and Esther felt bad for a moment.

“You didn’t come out of the forest when I opened it?” Esther asked.

“No, quite the opposite.” He reached his hand up to the cork in his ear. “In fact, I should thank you for opening the gate and letting me in.”

“Well, I didn’t mean to do that,” Esther said.

“And you did it again, didn’t you?” Mr. Dauer tilted his head to let the wax and oil drip out the side of it. “Opening the gate. Finding the book. And finding the bridge! Why do you even need your brother and sister?” He tapped his cane on the bridge. 

Goosebumps lifted the hairs on Esther’s neck and arms. “They do good things, too,” Esther replied.

“Marian couldn’t even take a proper photo,” Mr. Dauer mused. 

Esther furrowed her brow. She almost said something, but Mr. Dauer kept going.

“Oh, I suppose she brought a sandwich.” Mr. Dauer put the cork back in. “So she’s as good as a lunch lady. And Herbert—well, Herbert doesn’t do a thing, does he?”

“I love my brother. He’s sweet and brave.”

Mr. Dauer drummed his cane with his crooked fingers before tapping it on the bridge again. “You know, Esther, soon enough you will learn you are very fast all on your own, and you have to sit around and wait when you involve others.” 

Esther looked at the ground. She heard voices from behind her and turned away from Mr. Dauer. 

“I tell you, I always hated crossing mud.” Balaam’s rusty voice came through the forest. “It gets in your horseshoes and takes weeks to get out.”

Esther smiled and waved her hands in the air. “Over here! Come quick!”

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