Congratulations to senior Felicia Nelson for receiving the Silver Scholastic Art & Writing Award for the following story published on Achona on October 24, 2012:
This short story is inspired by The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg.
“So it’s true, he thought, it’s really true.”
“I tell you boy, I’ll never forget the moment I first saw it. The most beautiful sight I ever did see in all my years. After all of it, those waterfalls, the mile-high cliffs, the flower forest, it was so worth it just to see it there, to know that all of it wasn’t for nothing. You understand?”
“Sure I do, Grandpa. Wow, that’s a great story! But Grandpa, what happened after you saw the light? Did you find the golden harp? Did you play it? Did you bring it back with you? Or did you leave it behind for someone else?”
“Well, you know… you know son, I don’t remember. I laid my eyes on it and then… then it’s blank, that place in my mind where the rest of the story should be.”
“Awww c’mon Grandpa, you’ve got to remember! Try to, please? I want to know what happened next!”
Alonso traced his finger over the dotted line that wound its way around the tattered, yellowing map. This map had belonged to his grandfather, and was almost as old as him too, at least a hundred. Grandfather always was an eccentric, even at my age, the young boy mused, remembering fondly the old man’s tales of magical quests, stories that built to a climax but had no end. And now here he was.
He really had no idea what had prompted him to follow the ancient map in the first place. Perhaps it was the old childhood memories of Grandfather’s fairytales stirred up again, even though he was getting too old for such things. Or maybe it was his never-ending sense of adventure that had possessed him since boyhood, according to his parents. Truly though, he never really expected anything to come of it. For all he knew, this map could be some sort of prop, or the product of a madman’s dreams. No, Alonso caught himself with that last thought, Grandfather wasn’t crazy. Just a little… different.
Alonso really didn’t know what lay ahead beyond the fragments of the stories he had heard, but even that couldn’t prepare him for what he would find. Slowly but surely, he started out, following the route that began at his front door, and ended in what was a large patch of green on the worn-out map, probably some kind of forest. Intercutting the calculated route were splotches of blue and white, triangular peaks of brown and gray, and a group of colorful dots that almost looked like flower blossoms if you stared long enough.
Not long after leaving his house, Alonso found himself on a familiar path. Of course, he thought smiling to himself, the Frothy Falls! That must be this blue mark on the map! He continued on, knowing where he was going now and not really needing the map for this leg of the journey. When he reached the falls after an hour or so, they thundered and flowed as majestically as he remembered. He was about to walk past when he noticed something strange about the map. The road went on in front of him, but the line tracing the path to the supposed harp seemed to skew off in another direction. Must be some mistake, Alonso mused. Suddenly something grabbed his attention. He could have sworn that he had heard a sound coming from somewhere near the base of the falls. How could anything be audible over the roaring water? But he was sure he’d heard a sort of musical trill, almost like… no, I must be mad, he decided. Still he walked towards the sound, and came face-to-face with the cliff from which the water tumbled. Nothing but solid rock. But wait, what was that in between those two boulders? Some sort of crevice? Alonso approached it, realizing that it was plenty big enough for him to crawl through. And so he did.
When he emerged from the crawl space in the falls, Alonso stood stock-still and gaped at what he saw. Behind him, there was no trace of the waterfall that had once been. In front of him lay the tallest, most intimidating series of mountains and cliffs that he had ever seen, outside of books that is. To his knowledge, his region had never had mountains; in fact, it was mostly flat except for the occasional hill.
“Where in the world am I? What’s happened?” he cried aloud, panicking for a brief moment before he remembered the second portion of Grandfather’s story. Mile-high cliffs… how could he have forgotten? Upon further inspection though, he realized that the cliffs spanned the area as far as he could see. No way to go around, under, or even through like before. Well, isn’t this a pretty sight! he thought, shaking his head and sitting down to puzzle out his next move. But no sooner had he done so that the sound came again, that same series of notes, its source still hidden. Almost immediately after, Alonso noticed a pile of something lying near the foot of one of the cliffs. When he drew closer to inspect, he saw a long coil of rope, with a sharp metal anchor attached to one end. Madness! he thought, shaking his head and smiling. Even so, he tossed the anchor up to the top of the cliff (how it reached so high he had no clue), then tied the other end securely around his waist and began to climb. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally made it to the top.
Once Alonso finally dragged himself a safe distance away from the cliff’s edge, he collapsed on his stomach in exhaustion, wanting nothing more than to be able to catch his breath and not have to worry about heights or rope or any of it again. When he could finally pull himself up again, he wandered towards the other edge of the cliff to figure out how he was supposed to get down. Thinking that nothing else could possibly surprise him, Alonso once again stood eyes wide and jaw dropped, staring at what lay beyond. A sea of pinks, yellows, oranges and reds. The thick scent of spring in the air. Flowers of every kind, as tall as trees! Alonso pulled the map from his pocket, trying to locate this magnificent landmark. When his eyes settled on the patch of colored specks to the right of the cliff drawings, he knew he was still on the right path. Just look at all this! There’s no way it could all be just some fairytale! his thoughts screamed. He cursed himself for ever doubting Grandfather.
After he got over his initial astonishment, Alonso noticed a giant petal from one of the larger flowers that lay no more than half a meter from the cliff’s edge. As he looked further and further out, he saw another petal resting next to and a little below the first one, with yet another petal near this second one. The trend seemed to continue on almost all the way down to the ground. His legs shaking and heart pounding, Alonso stepped back as far as he could, then sprinted to the edge of the mountain and jumped. He landed flat on his stomach in the middle of the flower petal, digging in his finger nails to hang on and pull himself up. Once he got to his feet, he was surprised that a single petal was capable of holding his weight. Slowly, he jumped down and down until the last petal brought Alonso back to solid ground. Finally, he breathed, no more heights!
Pulling out the map to take another look, Alonso noticed that the forest where his journey would end should be somewhere near the end of this giant garden. Suddenly, he heard an odd noise coming from behind him. Some sort of vibrating or buzzing sound… He didn’t see anything when he looked, but the noise was definitely getting louder.
“H-Hello?” he called out nervously, before something crashed into him from behind, almost knocking him over. But before he could hit the ground, something long and black came out of nowhere and coiled around him. Before Alonso could even think of screaming for help, he was lifting off of the ground. He screamed and screamed in terror before he realized what it was that had him. Long black tongue, wings, buzzing sound… he craned his neck upward and saw the body of a giant bumblebee, one that had wrapped him with its tongue and was taking him away! Alonso wanted to scream again, but then he noticed that this bee seemed to be heading towards a huge cluster of trees out in the distance… a forest! That green blob on Grandfather’s map! Plus, he thought, he was flying! No one’s ever going to believe this! he thought, grinning.
Alonso and the giant bee soared through the sky, dodging daises with stems like tree trunks and roses with thorns as sharp as the sharpest axe. The most vibrant colors Alonso had ever seen sped past his eyes, and the different smells were positively intoxicating. Eventually, the bee began to land, touching the ground just long enough to unfurl its long tongue and set Alonso free. He waved goodbye and shouted out thank-you’s as the bee flew away over the flower-trees. Then, he looked around to try and determine where exactly the bug had let him go. There were no trees here, just a giant rock wall that seemed to form a border around the entire flowered region. More cliffs? he moaned. That stupid bee brought me right back to where I started!
Just as he was about to get very angry, Alonso heard that music again, louder this time, telling him that he couldn’t be far away. But where? There was nothing here but plants and a giant rock! The same tune from the harp kept playing, taunting him with every note. By this time, Alonso was so exhausted and so frustrated that he proceeded to start banging his head against the cliff out of exasperation.
“Where are you?” he shouted, “Show yourself already! What is this, some kind of joke?” No sooner had he hit the side of the cliff a third time, the whole thing was illuminated with a strange gold light. Then Alonso was forced to cover his ears against the horrible grinding sound that followed, a hundred times worse than fingernails scraping on a blackboard. Steadily, the rock wall shifted to one side, leaving a small doorway in its wake. With trepidation, Alonso slowly stepped inside the dark hole.
After a short walk through a dark, narrow tunnel, Alonso saw a speck of light gleaming at what must be the exit. He walked faster now, anxious to see what would await him. But nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to see. The light at the end of the tunnel grew bigger and brighter until finally, legs shaking, Alonso stepped into a places unlike anything he had ever seen before. His first thought after staring in absolute awe at his new surroundings: green. The long, dewy grass under his feet, the moss and ivy lining the walls, the trees reaching up, their leaves completely hiding the top of the cave, the whole placed was covered in every shade of green imaginable. But it didn’t stop there. On one side of the cave, a small stream of water flowed from a hole in the wall, creating a small pool surrounded by a row of little golden rocks. Up in the treetops, some sort of stringy, golden vines wound around the tree branches, giving everything a lovely glow. At last, Alonso’s gaze settled on a small hill in the middle of the room. On this hill, there sat a tall, sparkling, golden harp. So it’s true, he thought, it’s really true.
As if on cue, something invisible rippled through the harp strings, producing chord after beautiful chord. As a man walks toward his bride at the altar on his wedding day, so Alonso reverently approached the harp. It glistened even more up close, and there was even a little gold chair right next to it for him to sit on while playing! He sat down and reached out to touch it, before thinking about the fact that he had never played a harp before, and had no idea where to begin. But almost unconsciously, his hand reached out again and his fingers swept along each string, summoning up the most wonderful tones Alonso had ever heard. Not needing to think about what he was doing (his hands seemed to work independently of his mind now), Alonso played and played for what felt like forever. Under his breath, he started to sing a song that he had never heard, but that his lips seemed to know:
Grace, majesty, and beauty unite, here a spirit could truly take flight,
But now the air is dark and cold, here, where true love could not hold
Should I catch you with my eye, swear this oath to me, forget or die…
He suddenly snapped back into reality. What was all that? he fretted. Die? Who’s going to die? Suddenly he was panicked. Had he made that up himself? It was almost as though someone had whispered each word in his ear, teaching him as he went along… His eyes flicked back and forth, taking in the majestic space around him once more.
“Who… who’s there?” Alonso asked timidly.
“I might ask the same of you,” a small, girlish voice replied out of nowhere.
“W-w-where are y-you?” Alonso asked, trying and failing to sound brave.
“Boo!” The voice yelled suddenly from right over Alonso’s shoulder, causing him to scream and run several feet before collapsing on the ground, hiding his face in terror. When we opened his eyes, he found himself staring at a girl – no, an apparition of a girl, one paler than pale and floating ever so gently off of the ground. “Sorry, that was childish of me,” she said sheepishly, “Let’s just start over, shall we? My name is Melinda. Forgive me for not asking your name. You see, I already know it.”
Alonso blinked several times. “Melinda”, whatever she was, looked like a girl his age, dressed all in blue with a head full of brown curls. “What are you talking about? What are you, and what is this place?“ he stammered.
“Ssh! So many questions!” Melinda murmured, drawing closer to Alonso. “Oh, you look just like him,” she whispered, staring directly in his eyes, her face suddenly filled with pain. Alonso was thoroughly perplexed.
“I remember when I first saw him,” she started, talking as in Alonso weren’t actually there. The girlishness was gone from her now, replaced with an aura of sadness that comes from knowing too much about the bad things of the world. “I always thought that he followed me from the market. One day he just came to me, to this place, the private niche I had made just for myself. I was playing a new song on my prized harp, that one right over there. Our eyes met, and he smiled, and oh, his eyes looked so kind!” she cried, her voice breaking. “Forgive me. I won’t cry, I’ve burdened you enough.
She continued, “I played and played, not wanting it to end, and he seemed so pleased. We spent days there, just us two, nothing to disturb us. It was like I was sleeping, having a never-ending dream, and I didn’t want it to end. But when I woke up one morning, a few days later…” Another choked-off sob. “… there was nothing! It was as if he’d vanished into thin air. At first I thought maybe it had been just a dream. But I knew. I knew! ” she wailed. Alonso stared, not really knowing what to do.
“Who is this that you’re talking about? And what does it have to do with me?”
Melinda didn’t answer. “Days, weeks, months, and nothing! No letters, no visits, what was I to do? I never left here, fearing that he would come back and I would miss him. Eventually it got so that I could never go back. What would I tell everyone? Oh, why, why did he have to forget me, leave me here to rot?” she sobbed in anguish. Alonso couldn’t take this craziness anymore.
“Who? Who is this man? Why did you lure me here? Whatever game you’re playing here surely doesn’t concern me!” Melinda spun around, ghostly tears streaming from her eyes, and Alonso immediately regretted his harsh words. “Forgive me,” he begged, “I only want to understand why I am here. Please tell me, who is it that hurt you so badly?”
“You truly don’t know, do you?” she asked him, seeming intrigued. “Well, I guess that doesn’t really surprise me. You see, my dear Alonso, this man, the man who ruined my life the day that he left it, was none other than Claudio Spittze.” Alonso’s eyes went wide. It couldn’t be! “My… my great-great-grandfather? H-how?” He had never actually met his great-great-grandfather of course, but had always know him to be a kind, gentle man and a wonderful grandpa to Alonso’s… grandfather. Suddenly everything was falling into place. “Then it was you who-“
“-drew him here, just as I have done you? The answer is yes,” Melinda answered curtly. “He had such an adventurous spirit, just like his father. I was sure that once he arrived here, he would never want to leave… but I was wrong.”
Alonso was nearly speechless by now. “Why did he always say he couldn’t remember?” he murmured. “Simple,” replied Melinda, “I made him forget. Why should he remember such beauty when his own grandfather could put it out of his head so easily? Forget, that is the only promise I require, should you ever choose to leave my place. Forget or die, the words you sang moments ago, remember?” she teased.
Anger and frustration was now welling up inside Alonso. Why should I be doomed to forget such a place? he fumed. I’m nothing like my great-grandfather! As if reading his thoughts, Melinda replied, “You have a piece of him in you. So did your grandfather. I would never allow stories of such an awesome little world to pass the lips of such an undeserving band of men! Now, if you will still not stay with me here, you will forget everything that you have seen today, or you will not live more than a few moments from now. What will you say?”
Alonso was appalled. “I won’t forget! I refuse!” he shouted. “I’ll show you that I’m better than Claudio. I’ll share my story with my sons, and their sons, and bring them up to always do right and never hurt anyone the way you were hurt. I swear!” But Melinda wasn’t pleased. “Very well,” she replied coolly. And with that, the strings of the harp still standing behind Alonso loosened themselves from their frame and wrapped around Alonso with one wave of Melinda’s hand. Constricting him like a snake, the harp strings bound his wrists behind his back like a prisoner in handcuffs. “Let go of me!” Alonso demanded. “Let me go!”
But Melinda seemed not to hear him. She floated near the constricting harp, giggling to herself as though the whole situation was a silly joke. Gradually, her laughter rose to a fever pitch, sounding more like an evil laugh. Then, through terror, anger, a sudden rush of adrenaline, or a combination of all three, Alonso tugged fiercely at the strings around his wrists, growing more and more frantic with each pull. Suddenly the strings, which were by their very nature still quite gentle, tore away from their frame one by one. Melinda, in her hysteria, did not even notice until she caught a glimpse of Alonso dashing towards the wall where he had entered the cave. Furious, she summoned up all of her power and began hurling any loose rock she could find at her escaping prisoner.
Alonso weaved through the flying debris, dodging each rock, until he saw the glimmer of outside light indicating his exit. But to his horror, he noticed the gap growing more and more narrow. She’s closing me in! his thoughts screamed. Drawing on the little energy he had left, he sprinted for his finish line, diving through the opening just before it shut. As he flew through, a flash of blinding light and a ghostly shriek overcame him.
Alonso awoke to the sound of running water. No, louder than running water. A roar more like, thunderous waves cascading down… the waterfall! He sat upright and found himself sitting next to the waterfall where his journey had begun that very day. But what journey? He closed his eyes and saw the waterfall, huge cliffs, flowers as tall as trees and bees the size of zeppelins, and then everything fading, fading to white… and then he had awakened. Slowly, Alonso got to his feet, but when he did, he realized that he had been clutching something in his left hand. Opening his fist, he saw a long, very thick piece of metallic string. But where had it come from? Alonso had no idea.
And then he remembered. And he smiled, filled with pure relief. With tired feet and a sense of adventure and accomplishment swelling in his heart, Alonso headed for home. But as he walked, he wondered. What if it doesn’t last? he worried. How long can I hold onto this glorious image? Then he had an idea. It was already starting to blur in his mind. As he continued down the road, Alonso toyed with the harp string in his hand, winding and knotting, creating something that would symbolize his journey whether he remembered its meaning or not.
“You see my boy, I’ll never forget the moment I first saw it. It was truly the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen in my life. After the Frothy Falls, the mile-high cliffs, the forest of flowers, it was so worth it just to know that all of it wasn’t for nothing.”
“That’s a great story Papa! But… what happens next? Didn’t you ever find what you were looking for? What comes after the bright white light?”
And as he searched his mind for an explanation, Alonso touched the necklace that had hung from his neck since boyhood, though he could not remember who had given it to him or where it had come from. Whenever he told the story, his hand always seemed drawn to it. A simple necklace consisting of a single string of thick, flexible metal. Almost like the strings of an instrument, he thought, smiling.