I was not afraid… at least I don’t think I was. It’s been a long time, but I remember it as though I am still there. I followed the unspoken command of my guardian and began to walk, slowly at first, toward the center of the grove. Gliding over the turf in a state of childlike daydream, I moved unconsciously toward my destination while gazing up at the heights. If only the mists hadn’t hung so thick about the heavy branches, perhaps I would’ve seen the green treetops or the open roof of the surrounding crater letting in the light of a pale morning sky.
I was startled by a surge of cold running through my foot and along my ankle. I felt the sting before I ever heard the splash as my foot made contact with the water. I quickly pulled myself back, dragging my foot in the grass as I edged away from the bank of what I quickly recognized to be a small, silver spring. To my right, I could see where the river flowed out from the far right side of the bank and where it emerged from behind the spring. I can still hear the rush of water sighing alongside wet blades of blue grass.
“You have disturbed my waters.”
A woman’s voice rose from the stillness. Tiny ripples bubbled up from the center of the silver, glassy pool as the feminine voice spoke, and little waves brushed up against the soft, grassy bank.
“Forgive me,” I said. “I was looking up.” For some reason, I wasn’t as stupefied as some may think I ought to have been.
“Yes,” she said. “I know you were. So was I.”
I often wonder if I ought to have waited a few more moments before saying what I said next. Perhaps I might have learned something of life’s great mystery, or maybe I would have been granted some foreknowledge of my destiny, or maybe I would have awakened from a dream… had I only waited.
“Why do you hide from me?” I asked, curious. “Never have I been rebuked by so pure a voice as yours. Please, allow me to look upon you.”
“Are you always this direct with women in your own country?” She asked.
“No… well, I don’t know. I’ve never had much in common with them.”
The waters stirred with an onrush of fresh ripples, making the pool seem like a miniature sea during a tempest. She was laughing. And it was such beautiful laughter, not like the kind that mocks or makes fun of the listener, but the kind that makes the listener unable to do anything but smile and laugh back.
“Few men do,” she said as soon as her laughter had faded again into stillness. “You are the first of your kind, John Seeker, who has asked to look upon me. I find that interesting.”
“You know who I am?”
“No, I only know your name. Only you can truly know who you are. But that is a matter of conversation to be set aside for another time.”
“Why have I been brought here? Into your world, I mean.”
“It is not my world, John Seeker. And why do you say ‘brought’ as though it was not by choice that you came?”
I tried to think of something to say in response, but the question so confused me that all I could do was stare out beyond the pool with something of a drone-like expression on my face.
“Many who live in this world would recognize you by voice alone,” she said after a few moments, “for it is your voice we often hear echoing over the plains, stirring the ill creatures to life and spurring them on to greater mischief. You see, you have been disturbing my waters for some time now, long before you accidentally put your foot into my pool.”
“My voice… I don’t understand. Your men took me from my home and brought me here to you.”
“Nevertheless, you were looking for a way to get here and you found one. Be thankful the others didn’t find you first.”
I could see the truth in her words. I had for a long time been dissatisfied with my own world. I had always been looking for an escape.
“What others?” I asked. I suspected who she meant, but feigned ignorance in order to lessen my growing sense of guilt.
“The ones you name otherling. Strange that you call them that. I thought that our words were much the same as yours. You wanted them to find you, but we found you instead. Are you disappointed to be robbed of your inspiration?”
Suddenly, as if I had been gifted with a portion of her intelligence, I understood what she was telling me. I understood why she knew me by my voice, why she regarded me with an unexpressed sentiment of disappointment and even anger.
“I didn’t realize… All that I have written—”
“Not only what you have written, but all that you have ever imagined: every nightmare you have ever entertained by regarding it as inspiration, every dream you have corrupted by your fascination with darkness—these you have in turn brought to life. All the evil that has for so long lain quiet beyond the Divide has been awakened by your thoughts and your words. And this world suffers violence as a result.”
Her voice was firm, queenly and authoritative. I knew that I could not contest such a voice, nor did I have any desire to do so. Her words revealed to me the truth of all that I was responsible for causing. The otherlings were waking up because I was calling them into action. Even in my own world, fresh nightmares were being pressed into the hearts and minds of so many children, and I was the one doing the pressing.
“I know your heart is true, John Seeker,” she said, interrupting my thoughts. I could tell that she had returned to using a more gentle tone. “I can sense your sadness, the pain you feel because you are always alone. I too am alone, and I too am sad… sad to see what has become of the sons and daughters of your world, and it pains me worse to see what becomes of them when they depart from that world and enter into this one. Many of them never come to this sacred place… many are forever lost to wander in darkness beyond the Divide. And of those who do come here, none ever ask to look upon me. Do you still wish to see my face?”
“Never have I wished for anything more,” was my honest reply.
In the whole of my life I had never spoken the truth with more fervor than I did in that moment. Her voice was like a thorn in my heart and with every word she spoke, the thorn drove deeper. By this point it was taking every ounce of my will-power to keep myself from diving into the pool like a mad fool. The mist had grown thicker, more saturating. Each time I inhaled, her scent became more potent to my senses.
“Return to me after sunset, when the moon is at its highest.”
“Tonight, John Seeker.”
Without another word I turned and began walking away from the pool, compelled to obey. I followed the stream without thinking until it led me to the place where the throng had been earlier, but where now only one man remained: my guardian.
The open, grassy space was more visible now that the mists had risen high above our heads, hanging up among the branches as a haze of blue cloud. My guardian didn’t speak or even make so much as a gesture as I emerged from among the trees.
“Where are the others?” I finally asked him.
“Rains are coming soon,” he said, glancing up at the overhanging mist. “Rain always comes so that the grove may be refreshed.”
“Your people do not like rain?” Curiosity was driving my every thought, word, action. It took all of my willpower not to ask more than one question at a time.
“Rain is for the grove, and the goddess who tends it must be refreshed. The rain is also cold, and my people do not like the cold. The others have returned to the cliffs where the air is dryer. I have stayed behind to wait for you. Now, you will be wise to follow me, John seeker… before the rains come.”
He motioned to me with an outstretched hand. As soon as I started off toward him, he turned and began leading me to the left, past the wide entrance I had come through earlier. In order to travel this way we had to cross the stream again.
My guardian was conspicuously careful not to touch the water. He hopped lightly across to the other side, then looked back at me. I did the same, being careful not to make contact with the stream… and then I remembered my previous blunder with the goddess’s spring. My shoe was still damp from that encounter. I didn’t feel inclined to mention the fact to my guide, however. For some reason, I felt that it wouldn’t improve things if he or anyone else learned that an outsider had touched the waters of the grove. To him and his kind, this grove was a sacred place.
Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder: did he fear the stream because of its sanctity? Or did he fear it because of what it might do to him if he touched it? The question was unconsciously put out of my mind as we came upon a heavily wooded trail leading up among the surrounding mountains.