Joe wakes up in a barley field with no clothes, no memories, and no idea how he got there. Before he knows it, he’s off on the last great journey of his life. With his soul guide Baker and a charge to have courage from a mysterious, alluring, and somehow familiar Stranger, Joe sets off through a fantastical changing landscape to confront his past. The quest is not without challenges. Joe’s past is not always an easy thing to relive, but if he wants to find peace-and reunite with the Stranger he is so strongly drawn to-he must continue on until the end, no matter how tempted he is to stop along the way.
The creek had gone from shallow stream to shallow river and flowed swiftly into the woods. Tied to a large tree was a small boat, barely big enough for more than a couple of people. A bright red sail flapped with the breeze. On it was written two letters, 3P, in scratchy black scrawl like that of a young child who paid no heed the badgering blue lines of notebook paper. The vessel bobbed with the current of the river. The water sang brightly, a winking ta-dah!
“This is our ride, chief,” Baker said as he approached the small craft. He grabbed the thick rope tied to the tree and jumped into the boat with ease, the guitar sounding a hollow thump on his back. Joe positioned himself in the vessel more carefully, still uncertain of the new place he had suddenly found himself in. There were no seats in the tiny boat. Joe and Baker were to remain standing. This assumed Joe’s balance was functioning properly.
Baker untied the boat from the tree and the current pushed them onward.
“Looky here,” Baker said in dry excitement as he looked over the edge of the boat. “We got critters. Bet you never seen ‘em like this before.”
Joe cautiously peered into the water, careful not to tip the boat. Bright colors were shooting past, swimming with them. Rainbow fish. They leaped into the air through the circled mouths of the singing river spirits, which choked and coughed in displeasure. Joe couldn’t help but laugh and swore he saw smiles on the playful little fish as they lingered momentarily in mid-flight.
There were much larger things as well. Otters and beavers and turtles and platypuses. Were they to break out in song Joe would have thought it none the stranger. After all, the riverdid sing. At one point, a beaver placed its tiny hands on the aft of the boat, as if to aid their speed, using its slight might to push. It stayed there for a while, inquisitive eyes twinkling, then slid back beneath the waters once more with its beaver kin. Joe and Baker were being shown the way, it seemed. Small swimmers of all kinds guided their voyage down the river through the increasingly dense forest.
The trees appeared restless as the boat passed them. They creaked with loud snaps and groans, the sound of bark and wood stretching and twisting. But there was nothing ordinary about these trees. They too had faces. Knobby, grumpy-looking faces (of course they were grumpy-looking) that eyed the boat with discernable interest. Their eyes were wide, hollow holes, but they were not frightful. Only curiosity could be recognized from their wooded expressions and inquiring moans.
“Baker, look!” Joe whispered loudly, caught off guard by the rustic audience.
“Yeah, the trees,” Baker said, already past any wonder. “Strange place to call Heaven, huh?” Baker winked. “And these ain’t no special effects. This ain’t Oz or Middle-Earth.”
The roaring sound of falling water caught Joe’s attention. There was a drop-off ahead, a cliff. They had already traveled deep into the forest and the trees were many.
“Guess we better tie up here,” Baker said.
The boat, seeming to obey his wishes, drifted over to a bank, ignoring the strong current effortlessly. The myriad of critters that had accompanied them dispersed in random bursts and splashes. Baker took one long stride off the craft and then turned to help Joe.
“This is your first stop,” Baker said. The roar from the falls muffled the other sounds of the forest around them.
“A waterfall?” Joe questioned. “This is our stop? What could be here?”
Before Baker could respond, however, as Joe was stepping from boat to land, something jarred the craft, knocking it from side to side with a grinding wrench. Joe was rendered unbalanced and fell backward into the stream, losing his grip on Baker’s hand. The water took him under with a cold and powerful embrace. Submerged in the glassy liquid, he opened his eyes and saw something emerge from the wildest depths, a face-like form glaring at him hungrily in the current. It seemed a transparent visage for the most part, but for eyes made of silver fish that circled in rapid waltzes, and a mouth of some golden worm that wriggled around a tongue of writhing three-headed eels. The water that made up the creature was a shade of urine yellow. Somehow it was more polluted than the rest of the river. Remaining fixed as if admiring a meal before devouring it eagerly, the eyes regarded Joe. Then, suddenly, the creature raced for him.
Joe emerged from the depth with a pronounced gasp, struggling to get over to the bank as quickly as he could. Baker was on his knees, holding out a branch into the water for Joe to grasp. “Take hold here,” he yelled above the sound of the furious flow.
Joe swam as best he could against the current, away from the watery monster, but was continuously pushed farther down stream and closer to the falls. All thoughts of this place being Heaven had disappeared from his mind altogether.
He felt a tug below him and he froze in sheer terror. “It’s got me, Baker!” he cried. “Something’s got me!”
“Keep swimmin’, Joe,” Baker hollered. “This a-way!”
But all the swimming got him nowhere. Out of the guts of the river rose a figure so large that even the trees seemed dwarfed. A dragon, a demonic water-spout growing high into the forested air. It was of the water; one with it. As if the entire length of the river was its long, sleek body. Joe saw various fish and smaller amphibians swimming around the rank body cavity of the beast in cyclonic twists upward. The liquid features of its face could now be discerned more clearly. The silver fish eyes, the worm lips and eeled tongue, a long snout that dripped river sludge, and small ripples and waves all over its waterscape that echoed the likes of horns and spikes and scales. There were no arms or legs. This was a creature that had no need for those appendages, looming fierce and deadly as a cobra. Its hiss was like that of shooting water into the haul of a sinking ship, only magnified a hundred times.
Joe looked at the river beast in absolute fear as it stood to its full height over the forest and peered down at him in victory. Baker still called from the bank, trying to distract the creature. He threw fallen sticks and large stones which did nothing but disappear into the stinking serpent-like form and sink to the river bed.
Without warning, the monster charged down at Joe from its lofty height, head first. Its eeled tongue reached out for him, squirming in greedy anticipation, and Joe screamed in horror. He knew he could not escape this thing, whatever it was. The river held him in its grip. He closed his eyes to the approaching demon and waited his fate.
But, of course, his fate was not sealed. Not in this life. The story goes on.
From somewhere behind the river monster, Joe heard a challenging yell. More of a squeal, really. A small voice making a mockery of the beast’s epic actions.
Joe opened his eyes to see the fiend’s attention averted elsewhere; distracted in a moment of greatness by a small figure standing on a boulder on the bank near Baker. The creature juggled its options briefly, and then left Joe for the time being to focus on the other completely. It charged at the boulder as it had done Joe. The water around its extended torso splayed up around it in rage. But its intent to cause harm was coolly blunted. As it came within mere feet of the rock, the figure atop it held out a defiant arm and the transparent lizard fell apart into a million droplets of current with a screeching cry. Its tiny marine prisoners rained back into the place from where they had come with a chorus of splashes. The water calmed then, and soon continued on its natural flow over the cliff as if nothing had happened at all, as if the dragon were but a hiccup in an ordinary day, hardly noticed.
Joe, still shaking and frightened, swam to the shore. It was much easier now that the waters were not agitated. The current even seemed to aid him in this, all but stopping in the swim path. Baker gave him a hand and helped him to the safety of solid ground.
“What was that?” Joe trembled.
“Don’t really know, chief,” Baker said, once again steady and unnerved. “I ain’t never been to this area of the forest before. You’re all right, though.” He helped dry Joe with his own clothes and body. “Where’s a giant sponge when you need one, huh?” he joked.
“Whose forest is this?” Joe asked.
But then he heard the voice from the boulder. A tiny thing. Shrill and familiar, yet Joe was unable to place from exactly where he knew it.
“Hi!” said the voice in a loud burst. Joe could see the figure clearly now. It was a little boy with wet, messy blonde hair and a toothy grin minus a couple of teeth. He was standing proudly on the boulder, all barefoot and soaked swimming shorts, with two spindly arms resting on his hips. “How d’ya do?” he shouted, though he was no more than a few feet from them. “Thorry about the monthter. I try to keep them under control betht I can.” (He spoke with an undeniable, completely likeable, perfectly natural lisp.)
“My name ith Peter! Peter Patrick Pithburgh,” he said. The words shot from his mouth, each one, like a cannonball of spittle and determination. “But people call me 3P.”
Joe stood up from the ground, shaking off his last experience. “You can control that thing?” he asked. “What was it?”
“Jutht a water worm. Ain’t nuffin’ really. You jutht gotta shthow it who hath control. Can’t hurt you if you don’t let it. I’ve been fightin’ with that one from the firth day I got here.”
Joe looked at Baker in confusion. “Don’t ask me, kid.”
“It took y’all a while, didn’t it,” 3P shouted.
“You were expecting us?” Joe asked. He pushed back the wet hair from his forehead.
“Well, yeth. I knew you’d get here thooner or later,” 3P hollered. Baker couldn’t hide an affectionate smile.
“He’s a trip, huh?” Baker said to Joe.
“Come for a thwim?” 3P asked as he jumped down from the rock and hopped up to Joe’s side. “A thwim will calm you. The water worm ith thleeping now. I put him in hith playth.”
“A swim?” Joe responded incredulously, peering out over the rushing waters of the falls. “I don’t think….”
“Yep. Nothin’ like a good thwim,” 3P said as he grabbed Joe’s hand in his own tiny palm and pulled him toward the swift current.
“Wait! We’ll be swept over the edge,” Joe protested. Though, at the moment, he was more concerned about the sleeping habits of the river beast.
“Of courth,” 3P said knowingly. “Thath the fun part! C’mon!”
“What?” Joe cried as 3P let go of his hand and rushed at the frenzied stream. “Stop!” Joe screamed. “Baker, stop him!”
“This is his world, Joe. I cain’t do a thing. He makes the rules here. He’ll be fine.”
Baker settled himself against the trunk of a disproportionate climbing tree, unconcerned with the youngster’s seemingly dangerous activity.
Seeing that Baker wasn’t going to do anything, Joe took off running after the little boy, but it was too late. 3P jumped with a heroic holler into the crystal water. An echoing scream issued forth down the length of the falls. Yet it was not a scream of terror, but a cry of undiluted joy. Strange thing, that.
Joe tried to peer over the cliff but could see nothing. The child must have been buried deep beneath the uncaring, pummeling current. Joe’s heart was ready to break for him. But to his surprise he saw the water open like a blooming flower with white petals of foam, and out leaped 3P as if he were a springing trout or salmon. He flew through the air like a puppet on strings and landed safely, almost too carefully, on another large boulder that rested conveniently near the flowing river below. He waited there, looking up at Joe, drenched and smiling with crooked teeth and bright eyes, arms wrapped tightly around his knees as he sat on the boulder. He was calm and steady, not breathless at all. Joe was yet again in a state of disbelief, a state that was becoming more and more common here.
“C’mon down!” 3P shouted, his voice galloping up the falling water with snappy volatility.
“No way!” Joe yelled in return, still unsure as to exactly how 3P came out of the current so unscathed.
“Go on! Have some fun. What are you afraid of?” Baker said from his resting place at the tree. He didn’t bother to glance up from his guitar. “Dyin’?” Joe could have sworn there was a trace of a smile with that last word. A little jibe.
Yet, Baker was right. If this was an afterlife, if this was a bodyless existence and everything he saw was only his mind’s illusion, then leaping from a mountain top was as safe as tripping through a field of daisies. Still, the water was ferocious. It dared the nervous first-timer to swim along with it. The current had stopped singing a ways back. Peculiarly, Joe thought he heard a low chant coming from the river now:Jump! Jump! Jump!
“C’mon!” 3P yelled again. He was now standing on the boulder, his arms down at his sides, helping to push out every ounce of vocal encouragement.
“Great courage,” a voice said from somewhere near Joe. “Great courage.” Baker again, being his helpful self, Joe thought.
Joe took the words to heart, though. He picked up what audacity he could from the surrounding air, closed his eyes, and jumped with a high-pitched yelp back into the rushing stream. The waters crowded over and around him once again, carrying him like a victor to the prize, or a victim to the banquet. The river cheered in approval. Head above water, he opened his eyes to see the great drop of the falls in front of him and felt his bravery ebb.
A mistake! A mistake!
A long tree branch hung low over the waters ahead. Joe grabbed for it, but he was unable to reach it fully. His fingertips barely grazed it. The stream saw to that.
“Great courage!” He heard a voice say again. But it couldn’t have been Baker. The voice seemed too near, as if it were coming from someone right beside him.
Before he could think of another means of escape, the waters pulled him down the falls. Weightlessness combined with a terrifying, deafening roar. A sense of sublime elation overtook him and the noise and rumble were silenced as if a glass curtain had closed in around him. He heard only the inner whispers of his excited mind. Rushed whispers whizzing through his head like phantom fireflies. These whispers stirred in Joe a new thing. They were an awakening, the emergence of new memory. In those weightless seconds of unspecified time, he saw faces and matched these faces to names. Suddenly, he remembered places and events of his childhood, of a former self, like he was waking to the reality of the world after a night’s restful sleep. It was like the night in the field of barley, only more pronounced and meaningful.
Memories as echoes in visual form:
His mother’s gentle face beamed at him from sharp jolts of recall; friends he had known shouted at him through screen doors to come out and play; embarrassing accidents in school plays made him cringe; and the leather from hot car seats stuck to his legs on long rides to his grandmother’s house on summer vacation. He was reliving these things. He was able to see every Christmas gift, every birthday party, and every youthful mishap from his childhood in more than a simple snapshot or one reel film. And it all seemed new, and yet done and over with.
And then it stopped. Or at least, the focus shifted to one particular memory….
About the Author
Eric Arvin resides in the same sleepy Indiana river town where he grew up. He graduated from Hanover College with a Bachelors in History. He has lived, for brief periods, in Italy and Australia. He has survived brain surgery and his own loud-mouthed personal demons. Eric is the author of THE REST IS ILLUSION, SUBSURDITY, SUBURBILICIOUS, SIMPLE MEN, and various other sundry and not-so-sundry writings. He intends to live the rest of his days with tongue in cheek and eyes set to roam.
For more on Eric, visit http://ericarvin.blogspot.com/ and http://www.amazon.com/Eric-Arvin/e/B002BML3XS/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_2?qid=1347641674&sr=8-2
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