Thursday, June 3, 2010

Original Fiction: The Journey

The early afternoon sun filtered through the trees. I paused and reached out a gentle hand. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom, pink and white, glowing with life. As the breeze stirred, petals drifted to the grass. A whole blossom floated to my feet. I picked it up and carried it in the palm of my hand.

The smooth stone path cut through the meadow. It branched off into two directions. I hesitated; Hiroshi hadn’t given me any directions. Which one led to the inn? The panic rose from the pit of my stomach and clouded my eyes.

I shook my head and listened to the wind. The leaves rustled, bringing the smell of fresh cherries. Far off in the distance, just beyond my range of hearing, I heard the thunder of rushing water. A river? A stream? No one told me about a nearby lake. I turned and followed the left-hand branch.

The cherry trees gave way to tall evergreens. The path was strewn with pine needles and seeds. Woodsy smells made the air tremble with sharp green incense. I made my way around boulders and slick stones. A knocking sound stopped me in my tracks. Who was chopping wood way out here?

Then a red-feathered woodpecker darted past my face and into the trees. Startled, my foot slid as I tried to regain my balance. The woodpecker stared at me with beady eyes. It turned its head and struck the wood with its beak. Knock-knock, it said. Knock-knock. Go-on. What-are-you-waiting-for? We gazed at each other for a minute, then I reared my head and laughed. He pounded the tree trunk in time with my laughter, joined me in the joke.

I went on. The air was cooler here; I zipped my windbreaker and clutched my walking staff in hand. The smell of ripened fruit took me around the next bend. My stomach growled in response. Soon it would be lunchtime, but I had not taken any food with me. Somehow, that did not concern me.

The path stopped around the corner. It sloped upward into wide stone steps, hewn from the rock. They stacked up one on top of the other and disappeared into the mist above. I craned my neck, but I couldn’t see the topmost step. I’ve taken the wrong turn, I thought. I took a step backwards, but my foot touched air. I whirled around; my foot dislodged a pebble, and it flew out into open space. I listened as it shattered in the valley below.

Where was the path? I couldn’t have come from thin air! But it was gone, vanished as if it hadn’t been. If I had walked backwards without thinking, I would have fallen on the nasty rocks below.

I had to go forward. I had no other choice now.

Climbing the steps was tedious. I tiptoed just enough to grab the edge of the step and haul myself up to the next one. The smooth flat surface was covered with moss and lichen, cold and slippery beneath my fingers. My muscles ached; my hands started to go numb. The clouds of my breath mixed with the darkening mist. I could not see where I had been, and the shadow of another step loomed above me.

Just keep going, I told myself. It had to end somewhere. The steady drone of falling water grew louder and louder. The echo bounced off the rocks, magnifying it ten, twenty, fifty times. My ears stung, my head pounded as the sound reverberated off the walls. I could not even think straight.

You can’t make it, the echo said. You’ll be deaf by the time you find your way. It chuckled and sent waves of agony into my brain.

I sat on the edge of my step, rubbing my stiff neck with red and chafed hands. There was blood where the sharp granite needles had dug into it. A sharp twinge of pain jolted my fingers each time I flexed them.

Rest. I need rest, that’s all. It was so easy just to lie on that stone slab. Lie back and let the slick surface soak into my back. There was no harm in that, was there? It was hard to breathe; painful, shallow gasps rocked my chest. I leaned forward and closed my eyes. Dizziness made me open them again.

Lean too much forward, and I would tumble down into empty space. Lie down and I was surrendering to the elements. Water, Earth, Air.

Fire. There was no fire. I shivered; my clothes were soaked with the humidity. I got back up and turned to the next step. Yes, there is, I told myself fiercely. The fire is within.

I pushed on. Up and up, further into the mist. It turned an ominous gray, like thunderclouds, but there was no rain. I smelled the sweet scent of apples. Apple blossoms, apple wine. Then as soon as it began, it was over. I reached up and touched only air. I had reached the topmost step. Trembling, I ventured forwards, walking staff in my hand.

The mist parted. I stood overlooking the valley below.

"My God," I whispered through parched lips.

The sun broke out through a curtain of water, flowing straight down and through a hole in the mist. A crisscrossing network of bridges connected the various ledges above me. The right sequence of bridges would take me to the next level; the wrong one would keep me wandering aimlessly from ledge to ledge.

I frowned and tried to plan my strategy. It was confusing; all of them looked the same. Where would I start?

Finally, I stepped out onto the first bridge. It was wide enough for two to walk abreast. The wooden planks were strong and bore my weight. Soon I got used to the gentle sway of the ropes and moved with it. My stiff knees and shoulders howled in protest at first, but the easy movements eased the pain.

Exactly midway on the bridge, the smoke cleared out from under me. I stared straight down and saw the cherry blossom field far below me, bathed in white sunlight. The whiteness covered it like snow. Its beauty reflected like a mirror. I stood there, transfixed, the shock driving away all thought. I hadn’t realized how far I had come.

That’s where I was. Now I’m here. How do I get back?

I stepped easily onto the ledge on the other side. By this time, the aches in my arms and hands had disappeared. I looked over my shoulder at the colors below. Now there were two other bridges leading off this ledge. Which one was the right one? I picked the left one, since it seemed to go directly upwards. So I went on. The view below me changed. Everything was covered by a layer of blue smoke. Baby-blue, but there was no variation, no brilliance. It was a pleasant haze, but I had lost the brilliant view. I could not see my blossom field.

Keep the field in sight, my instinct told me. Pick the bridges that will keep it in your sight. Don’t lose it.

I turned around and took the right bridge. Unlike the other one, it sloped downward, which was why I ignored it in the first place. So I crossed this one. The field was there, a little to my right. This time I saw the green patches surrounding it. Forest!

As I hopped from ledge to ledge, I saw a new vista open up under me. Goldenrod and scarlet, royal purple and silver. Each one stood in its place, but accented the whole picture. I paused at each ledge, trying to see how this new part fit in with the others. Some were more somber than others, but they were necessary pieces of the puzzle.

The excitement made my heart race. It was as if my body knew which bridges to cross. Sometimes I had to backtrack to get on the right one, but that happened less and less frequently. The final ledge opened out onto a flat plain. The water’s violent pounding gave way to a steady gurgle. It now rolled happily in its banks, lazily making its way to the rapids below.

A warm breeze ruffled my hair. The valley was lush with color, far as the world stretched from horizon to horizon. A blanket of dark velvet studded with brilliant diamonds surrounded its edges. I thought I saw some midnight blue and purple glitter within the rippling pool.

The beginning of all things, a voice said.

I raised my hands to my face. They were rough, lines with cuts and abrasions, swollen with effort. The water vapor had leached the color from them. The skin was wrinkled from the water and the harsh ropes.

The sound of shuffling footsteps broke into my concentration. When I turned around, the stone path led directly to the inn. I heard the sounds of happy people within, words of song and revelry. Warm light spilled from the windows and onto the path. There was a shadow on the front porch.

"You have traveled far, Journeywoman," he said. The rich accent caressed each word. "From where did you come?"

"There," I said, pointing to the square of my field. It was nearly indistinguishable from the rest.

"From so far?" The surprise was tinged with humor. "You must be tired. Come, rest and eat and be merry. After all, you have earned it."

My shoulders slumped as if finally releasing a heavy burden. Yes, I’ve earned it. The exhaustion gave way to a sense of triumph.

I’ve earned it.

My friend guided me to the porch. As I stepped into the light, I saw another stone path leading from behind the inn. It led straight down the valley. Why had I not seen it before? I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had taken the easier way. A sense of frustration and betrayal started to fill my soul. Was all the effort for nothing?

"Then you wouldn’t have seen what there is to see." My guide looked me straight in the eye. "You wouldn’t have seen Life or Creation." He waved his hand out there. "That’s your own unique Tapestry, Journeywoman. You made it yourself, without anyone to distort the threads."

I turned to see it again. My own work. No one can take it away from me. It was there for other people to see and enjoy it.

And maybe learn from it.

"You can tell us all about it inside," he said. "I have fresh bread and ale. The musicians can play any tune you wish. The dancing is lively; it will ease your aches." Then he gave me another enigmatic smile. "Perhaps you will find old friends and greet new ones. Come. It is time."

I followed him to the door. Something floated, touched my hair. A pink and white blossom. I smiled and crossed inside, the flower nestled safely in my cupped hands.

Copyright 2006 by Annie Dameron

All writing and art copyright A. Dameron 2000-2010

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