The End of the BeginningChapter 18
The forest thundered under each of Maushop’s footsteps, until he had either distanced himself so far that they no longer felt the vibrations, or he had descended deep into the Pactolus again. The field sighed in relief, and all became calm. A blue mist fell from the sky, smelling like lavender and honey, and draped across the field. The children backed away from the mysterious cloud before recognizing the glow of the Ghost of Ponce de León at its center.
“You’re back!” Marian shouted in excitement.
Starlight perked up from Herbert’s shoulder and flew to Ponce de León, dancing and spinning around him like a jubilant firefly.
The Ghost smiled. “I never left, Marian,” he replied. “You just didn’t see me. Now—how about we heal that leg of yours, Esther?”
The Ghost led the children to the wall surrounding the spring. The spout, more like a spigot now that they saw it up close, poured the spring’s silky, smooth water onto a white granite plate that spilt into the shallow fountain. Aaron helped Esther sit on the edge. She slowly dipped her foot and leg under the water. Her skin turned glossy and sleek, as if bathed in oil, and a scent filled the air like violets and shepherd’s purse.
“Oh!” Esther said.
“What is it?” Aaron asked, concerned.
“It feels so cool—so pleasant,” she said.
“I’m very proud of you, Herbert,” the Ghost said. “You told the truth, and that took a lot, I know.”
Herbert smiled, sheepishly. “Thank you,” he said, because he didn’t know what else to say.
“Can you please tell us what is going on now?” Marian asked. “We are here. We did what we think you wanted us to do.”
“What is this place?” Esther asked.
“Who is the Army of Bones and Maushop?” Aaron butt-in.
“Where did they go?” Herbert added.
The Ghost smiled. “Maushop and his little people are a story for another time,” he replied. “But of course, I will tell you about this spring and who I am. I hope you know how much I love Florida. I came to this magical place many times in my adult life, traveling from Spain and Puerto Rico and back again. But the final time was in the year 1521. I brought two-hundred men and women with me—priests, doctors, artists—those who could help to create a beautiful and fruitful life in Florida. But I was misinterpreted. And mortally wounded by an arrow dipped in poison.
“The indigenous people—those I came to help and serve—they came to my aid. They brought me deep into the Enchanted Forest, here to the Fountain. And I have remained its protector ever since. My people—those that were left—returned to Puerto Rico after swearing to secrecy to inform others I had died in Cuba.”
“Why keep it a secret?” Marian asked.
“This place is not meant for those who cast poisoned arrows, or those that serve the ones that do.”
“I guess it didn’t work then,” Aaron said, and Ponce de León looked at him. “Saving your life, I mean. If you are a ghost, it means you died.”
The Ghost laughed, and it sounded like rich maple leaves blowing in the wind. “People are always confused about what eternity is. Everyone wants eternal life, but they don’t want to die to receive it.”
“Why did we have to come here?” Esther asked. “Couldn’t you have closed the gate at any time?”
“Unfortunately, no, Miss Esther,” The Ghost replied. “Once it was broken, Maushop knew his place to protect the Fountain. And he was under strict orders not to move for anyone, even me—only those who brought his little people back were worthy enough for him to move. With Maushop here at the Fountain, the fairies wouldn’t be, and eventually the Fountain would have lost its power. And that would be a very bad thing.”
“The fairies bring the power to the Fountain?” Esther asked.
“Some of them would think they do,” Ponce de León chuckled. “But no—they only sustain it.”
“Seems like a poor system,” Aaron muttered.
“It may seem strange today, but one day you may see that each puzzle piece matters.”
“If you are the protector of this place,” Marian thought aloud, “That means you are the one who wanted the gate there. Does that mean you are the one who put the creature in the swamp? Did you hurt Esther?”
“Of course not!” The Ghost encouraged. “However, they made you stronger and nobler for it.”
Marian didn’t like it.
Esther was silent.
Herbert was confused.
“So are all the monsters going to return to the Enchanted Forest?” Herbert wondered.
“Some of them,” the Ghost replied. “But the gate never kept the monsters in. Most already lived out there in the world. But don’t worry, Herbert—that smelly Skunk Ape will be gone forever.”
“If the forest wasn’t keeping all the monsters in,” Esther asked. “Why was there a gate?”
“Haven’t you guessed it, yet? The gate was to make sure only the right people entered.”
“Wait!” Aaron injected. “You mean closing the gate wasn’t ever going to get rid of the monsters around town?”
“I never said it would, Aaron,” the Ghost replied. “Sadly, the monsters are already out there in the world. And this forest must be protected.”
“Well, how do you like that?”
“Who have we met that wasn’t supposed to be in here?” Esther asked.
A splash of hot wax hit the grass behind the children. They turned to see an oily stain on the ground. A pair of crocodile and snake-skinned shoes kicked the grass and covered up the stain. And standing in those shoes was the thin, pale, and altogether unpleasant, Mr. Dauer. He reached for his hat and bowed before the children.
“Speakin’ of the bag of bones,” Aaron muttered under his breath. He pulled the machete between Mr. Dauer and the group. “Get away from us, you liar!”
“Hello, old friend,” Mr. Dauer addressed the Ghost. “What’s it been—five-hundred years?”
“Something like that,” Ponce de León replied. “What are you doing in my forest?”
The Top-Hat Man scowled and his neck twitched. “These wonderful children let me in, friend.” Here he opened his shaking arms and a cloud of dust puffed from his cufflinks.
“That’s a lie!” Herbert hollered at him.
“Be still,” Ponce de León held his hand out to Herbert. “You need not advocate for me, while I advocate for you.”
“Herbert doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut—do you, Herbert?” Mr. Dauer interrogated. “Always opening it to lie and steal.”
“That’s enough!” Marian shouted.
The Top-Hat Man ignored her. “Did you always grow up blaming others and lying your way to your parents’ and sisters’ affections, Herbert? Are you doing that with Ponce de León now, too? Will you ever actually deserve the love you get, Herbert—or will you just keep lying to get it?”
“Herbert,” the Ghost whispered. “Look at me.”
Herbert turned away from Mr. Dauer and looked at the Ghost. He was kneeling down next to him. “I don’t need you to be perfect,” the Ghost looked him in the eyes and smiled. “I just need you to trust me. Do you trust me, Herbert?”
Herbert nodded. With everything in him, he wanted so badly to hug the ghost, but knew he would go right through him.
The Ghost of Ponce de León rose and faced Mr. Dauer. “Something tells me you have already lost,” he said.
“And something tells me I’ll have another chance,” Mr. Dauer smiled. He reached his hand up and unplugged the cork from the side of his head. He tilted it, and wax and oil dripped on the ground. “See you soon, Dolors,” he said. And at the tap of his cane, he vanished before them.
The children looked around the dug-up field and back at one another, searching for where the Top-Hat Man disappeared to.
“Don’t worry about him, children,” the Ghost encouraged. “Now let’s look at that leg, Miss Esther.” He turned and bent down beside her. She lifted her foot from the Fountain, and to her amazement and delight, the wound had closed up, the infected spiderweb veins had dissipated, and the sutures had fallen off. She stood on her foot and gave a little happy dance, while the other children celebrated with her.
“Señor Ponce de León,” Esther said, and curtsied. “I can never thank you enough.”
“Kids, drink,” the Ghost addressed all of them. “Taste and see that the water is refreshing.”
The children bent down at the water’s edge. Their cupped hands brought a mouthful to their lips. It tasted like honey on their tongues, but in their stomach it felt sour and bitter.
“Does this mean we will live forever?” Aaron asked, wiping the residue from his lips.
“You would have to die in the waters to become eternal,” Ponce de León replied. “However, it will protect you from some evil sounds and spells.”
“Seems a bit like a letdown,” Aaron muttered.
A flurry of humming wind crept from all four corners of the forest. They wondered if it were raining until they saw the glowing flicker of fairies illuminating the trees and forest-floor. Millions of twinkling lights-pinks, blues, reds, oranges, purples, greens, and yellows-came from all directions, and surrounded the children like a tornado of color and light. They were blinding and fantastic, terrifying and exhilarating; buzzing torpedoes of light shooting around each of them in a graceful dance of joy and harmony. Herbert noticed that Starlight was no longer at his side. He searched through the wild anthem of color and light until he saw a familiar emerald glow emanating from the green fairy. He grinned in excitement that she had found her family. Though, later, he would regret not being able to say goodbye. All the while, the dance pulsated in lights, colors, and grace. One moment, they thought they comprehended that the dance formed a kind of story about the birth of the forest and the people chosen to protect it, but in the next instant it became confusing and nonsense again. The story of light and color lasted hours, as the fairies danced and pranced about the spring waters, long after the children even left.
Ponce de León led them through a separate path, back to the riverbank. “I’m very happy you came, children,” the Ghost said. “And so proud that you stuck together.”
“Ponce de León,” Marian said. She held the logbook in her hands. “The logbook added pictures and words as we went. English words and—well, us. Were we always in this book?”
“You were if you wanted to be,” the Ghost responded. “But it required you coming through the gate. If you hadn’t, someone else would have.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The book is already finished. The reader just needs to learn how to read the pages. Whosoever does, gets to play a part in it. And how much or how little of a part is up to them.”
Marian opened the logbook to the furthest recorded spot and saw a hand-drawn image of a riverbank. Birds flew in the air, fish jumped from the river, and a forest behind them danced in colorful light. Four children and a transparent apparition stood on the bank. The words underneath the image read: The End of the Beginning.
The book swelled and warped in Marian’s hands. She turned the page and saw another image drawn. This one of two boys sitting on a bench together counting acorns. Another page showed two girls swinging under a tree and using sticks as imaginary swords. The pages flipped through her fingers and she stopped at another. Its image showed three kids crying with each other at a funeral. Another of a cave swarming with crocodiles. Still another of a golden treehouse. And one of a little girl standing in front of a sort of bowl and grasping hold of a floating orb in the sky. She flipped the pages further and further, discovering every one of them had a picture, and no matter how many pages she turned, another page was waiting.
She looked up at Ponce de León. “I don’t understand. Who are these other children? Are there others who have come into this forest?”
He smiled. “Many, many others,” he said. “More than you can ever imagine.”
“Where are they now?”
“Finishing their stories.”
Marian didn’t want to look away from all the other fascinating pages and stories she had discovered, because something inside of her told her they wouldn’t stay there forever. And sure enough, wouldn’t you know that later, when opening the book to find the hidden stories again, they were nowhere to be found. Perhaps another tale will let us know what those stories entailed.
The Ghost took off his wide-brimmed hat with the enormous feather in it and held it between his hands.
“Herbert,” he said, “I need you to do something very important for me.”
“Okay,” Herbert said, bowing his head reverently.
The Ghost of Juan Ponce de León pulled from his hat a glowing panther artifact, identical to Herbert’s. “I need you to return this to the gate when you leave,” he said. “The one you have won’t work anymore. But you can keep it as a memento. I can’t hand it to you, you know. I’m a ghost, after all. So you must take it from me.” Herbert reached to take the glowing artifact out of his hand, and just as he reached for it, it dropped through Ponce de León’s hand and landed in the grass.
“Oh,” Herbert said, examining the artifact. “I think it got damaged. There’s a chip on the side of the panther’s face.”
“I’m sure it was always there, Herbert,” Ponce de León smiled. “No need to fret.”
He put his feathered hat on his head, which made Esther giggle, and bowed before them. “Dolor children, Aaron,” he said, “I wish you a happy adiós. Your parents are waiting for you, and I’m sure you best get home before they get too worried. The gate will remain open until you leave.”
The blue mist faded like a foggy morning meeting the warmth of the rising sun, and the Ghost disappeared. His eyes remained in the air for a moment longer than the rest of his transparent body until nothing remained but three fluttering pixies and a sparkle of light.