A Rest on the BankChapter 13
The sun pierced through the leaves and for the first time in hours, the children saw the blue sky over the black, murky forest. They worried their journey had taken them into the night, and—what are Mom and Dad thinking back home!—but discovered that the forest was dense enough to trick their senses. Though late afternoon was upon them, it was still early enough that Mrs. Dolor hadn’t called for suppertime.
When they exited the shadows, they laughed at one another’s appearances. Mud, dirt, and scratches everywhere. Brown filth smeared Herbert’s glasses, which he realized caused most of his trips and stumbles. One of Esther’s pig tails hung completely loose and tattered on her shoulder. Aaron’s jacket, which he tore up to help Esther, looked ridiculous covering only half of his body. And a large glob of mud stuck out on the center of Marian’s forehead, like a goofy unicorn.
“Best to get you monstrosities clean,” Balaam remarked, who looked the best of all of them. He led them to the western shore of a blue freshwater river. They were several miles southeast from where they crossed Weeper’s Run on Pascal’s bridge, which happened to connect to this much larger river that Balaam said had two names, The Pactolus or The River Rinkling. Here, on the southeast end of the swamp, the river broadened into a large placid lake, one mile in diameter, beside a meadow full of marigolds, before pivoting into a thin run under the caring arms of live oaks in the far south.
Marian and Aaron helped Esther off of Balaam’s back and placed her in the shallows on a pebbled bank. She carefully removed the tourniquet and let the water dab the wound. The cold water stung at first, but did wonders to clean it out and numb the pain. The rest of the party, disgusting and soaked through by the hot swamp, waded out into a deeper part of the lake and submerged themselves, scrubbing and shuffling around to get the clean water in every nook and cranny. Its freezing chill soothed their faces, arms, legs, and aching feet.
The water was clear and brisk. With the right sunlight underneath, the eye could see hundreds of feet in every direction, even the cavernous bottom that lay one-hundred-fifty feet below. Bluegills and bream skirted through bladderworts and pondweed. Mullet and carp hovered, nearly motionless, sifting through the sand and grass on the banks. And fat bass and catfish surveyed the roots and algae for easy prey. Common snapping turtles and sliders skated the current like fighter pilots, spinning and turning on a dime. Anhingas and cormorants dive-bombed into the water, snatching up bream, while herons, egrets, spoonbills, storks, kingfishers, and sandpipers patrolled the bank for minnows and shiners.
Esther leaned forward in the shallow water and stuck her face into the world below. Bur marigolds outstretched into the water and surrounded her hands and face in bright yellow beauty. She plucked one that waited underwater and brought it to the surface. The thing smelled extraordinary, like she was in a nursery surrounded by thousands of flowers.
After a long bath, Herbert squatted on the bank, between a grove of cattails and sawgrass, where he had let his fairy-friend rest. She was awake now, dusting off her delicate, transparent wings. Herbert sat on a large stone and held out his palm for her to climb onto.
She stood only a few inches high and wore a similar dress as the fairy Esther met when first entering the forest—which you will remember was made of grass and bark. But her entire body dimly glowed green and translucent like emerald. She shimmered in the sunlight, unfolding and stretching her wings in its hot rays, before fluttering them like a dragonfly. The pocket hadn’t been the most comfortable place to rest, but it did the job.
“My name is Herbert,” he said.
The green fairy didn’t know how to speak English, but seemed to understand him. She bowed and smiled at him.
“We’ve traveled far while you rested,” Herbert said. “We aren’t anywhere near the swamp now. Do you have a home or family waiting for you?”
The green fairy frowned and shook her head. She spread her delicate arms wide over her head, making a big oval. Then she tapped her toe and wagged her finger like a schoolteacher. She put her palms up and shrugged.
“Well, until you find them, you can stay with me,” Herbert said. “I’ll look after you since you looked after us.”
The green fairy smiled and fluttered to his shoulder. She nudged her silky golden hair between the crook in his neck and leaned against him.
“Starlight,” Herbert said. “I’ll call you Starlight.”
The fairy smiled and closed her eyes, content.
After the children finished cleaning off and Balaam moseyed out of the water, Aaron stood on the bank like he wanted to preach a sermon. “I hate to bring it up,” he said, “because of everything we’ve been through. But what are we doing?”
“Do you mean where are we going?” Marian asked, squeezing her hair free of fresh, clean water.
“We are going to the Fountain of Youth.” Balaam declared, and caught Marian’s smirk.
“Yeah, I know that.” Aaron paced back and forth by the water. “But with everything we’ve been through now—”
“I know,” Marian whispered.
“I don’t,” Herbert said. “What are the two of you talking about?”
“They think it’s better to give up,” Esther said.
“Give up?” Herbert said, shocked. “And go back through that?”
“Not give up,” Marian said.
“Maybe,” Aaron interjected.
“We just got through that horrible swamp, and now you want to go back?” Herbert asked again, shocked.
“Are there other ways back to the entrance, Balaam?” Marian asked.
“There’s many ways back,” Balaam replied, “but few ways forward.”
“Why should we give up?” Herbert asked. “We are almost there.”
“You don’t know that, Herbert,” Marian said. “Esther’s injured. It’s getting late. Mom and Dad may be worried.”
“Mom and Dad are in trouble!” Herbert said, and the entire group was silent. There were many things for the four of them to think about while on the shore. It was so lovely and relaxing, and they had just survived perhaps the most dangerous moment in their collective lives. But all of them had let themselves forget about the broken gate and mystical creatures on the loose in their town. All except Herbert, who in the back of his mind was still wrestling with the fact that it was his fault the gate was broken to begin with. And he was especially thinking about Mr. Dolor’s new vampire boss. “They haven’t believed us yet! Why would they now?”
“Herbert,” Marian said, “I only want to do what’s right. I’m trying to keep you two safe.”
“Marian,” Esther said. “It’s not your fault I got hurt. It was that thing in the woods. We are all in this together.”
“We don’t even know what the fountain does,” Aaron said. “We think it’ll close the gate, but why would it? Let’s face it—all of us thought this would be a short journey. None of us thought it would be this dangerous. And now it’s been near impossible.”
“But what about Balaam?” Esther asked. “If Ponce de León didn’t believe in us, he wouldn’t have met us with Balaam at the entrance. We can do this. We can make it, right?”
Marian looked at Balaam, who waited for the kids to finish discussing the matter. “Balaam,” she said, “what do you think? Ponce de León told us to follow you. Is it much longer?”
“Time is a hard thing to determine when you are complaining,” Balaam responded. “And I should know, I have one of you sitting on my back for the rest of the way—and you best be sure whatever direction we go, I’ll be annoyed.” He turned his long face and winked at Esther. “But I think we need to see this through to the end.”
“Esther,” Marian began.
“—Marian,” Esther interrupted her. “I’m okay. And I forgive you. So forgive yourself, and let’s get going.”
In all honesty, Esther wasn’t doing too good. The other three helped her on the talking donkey before continuing their journey along the riverbank. Esther examined her foot as she rode on Balaam’s backside. The bleeding had stopped, but the veins on her calf shone through her skin purple and sprayed upward like spiderwebs. It stung just looking at it, so she pulled the tourniquet a little higher up and told herself not to look at it. But her stomach felt weak, and her thoughts scared her.
The grassy meadow disappeared, and pebbles scattered across the bank, baking under the sun’s rich heat and blue sky. Blackbirds danced in the air, while hawks sailed a half-mile above them. Butterflies and dragonflies jolted about the side of the river, catching mosquitoes and grasshoppers. A sandhill crane took to the air when the group approached and squawked at them angrily.
Esther lay her head on Balaam’s mane and closed her eyes, listening to the cackle of distant woodpeckers and swifts and the buzzing flies under Balaam’s nose. She missed running ahead and finding the next part of the path, but the calm repetition of Balaam’s lifting and dipping back lulled her. It reminded her of riding on her father’s back when she was smaller. He would gallop around the living-room and make her feel like a real cowgirl. She never imagined herself one day riding a donkey through an enchanted forest. She opened her eyes when she felt Balaam stop.
The party had gathered on the bank. From the water, an enormous mudslide smeared across the ground, west toward the tree-line. It connected to the woods where the forest trees laid on the ground in broken, smashed rubble, leaving a wide open path of felled oaks and pines. Something monstrous clearly came from the water and ripped the forest to shreds.
“Where are we going?” Balaam asked.
“Onward,” Marian replied.
The sun was yawning in the west. It cast a crimson sky into the children’s eyes as they stepped into the forest, under the shade of oak, cedar, and pine. They walked in silence across land cleared by some unimaginable, massive force. Trees and bushes lay everywhere, uprooted and thrown to the side. Wide, round root systems, four times as high as all of them, lay on their sides, stretching their gangling fingers into the sky. Their trees were felled in the forest with hundreds of others. It had left the woods ravaged. The birds perched in silence, but every deer, rabbit, and squirrel seemed to have abandoned the area for miles. The forest was standing still, except for the scurrying flutter of insects looking for cover as the group approached. On the children ventured, until they heard three distinct sounds echoing in the distance, behind the cover of a massive felled ficus.
The first sound dribbled like a stream trickling on a sheet of glass. The second sound whistled like wind through sawgrass. And the third thundered like a whispering storm.
The band ducked under the ficus tree laying on its side. Its leaves and branches brushed their faces while they climbed through it sideways. Out from under its grasp, one by one, each child emerged. Aaron held a large branch up for Balaam and Esther to pass under. The group gathered itself and stood in awe.
The forest had cleared. Ash trees, water oaks, and pines lined a grand bahia field blowing in the wind. On the far side, a freshwater spring boiled into a river which filled up a pool inside of a stone wall six feet higher than Herbert’s head. Stone statues of men, women, and mythical creatures like unicorns, pegasi, fairies, piasi, urayuli, bakwas, skunk-apes, and pukwudgies on the top edge. At the front, a spout poured the spring water onto a thin sheet of glossy crystal. It trickled over its edges and into a shallow limestone fountain.
They found it. There was no denying it. The Fountain of Youth sparkled before them. Each of them, in their own way, felt immense satisfaction for having made the journey. The problem was, they weren’t alone.
The Fountain was the first sound they heard splashing. In front of the spring and fountain came the second and third sounds. It was the uneven inhale and exhale of a 45-foot-tall man laying upright in the field of bahia, leaning one elbow against the stone wall and dipping his fingers in the spring.
His skin was dark olive, like a Native American. His black hair was tied in a twelve-foot-long ponytail behind his shoulders. He wore only a few strips of tanned leather around his waist and biceps. A necklace of enormous gems, rubies, and sapphires hung across his bare chest. His free arm draped across his bent knee, and his furrowed brow stared at the children who had just arrived.