He lived atop a great mountain in the middle of his kingdom, a beautiful valley lush with green grass, abundant trees, teeming wildlife, succulent fruit, and scores of flowing streams that crisscrossed the land like a golden net. And while every field and hamlet, plain and dwelling in the valley was a berth of safety and contentment, there did exist in the valley one small, dark place, a glen in which lay a pool of water with no spring and no stream, and where the voices of the earth whispered in the wind.
The king had two sons whom he loved equally and with all his heart. The Eldest and heir had lived with his father many years, watching and learning so that one day he could reign as diligently and humbly as the king. Daily the Eldest rode with his father through the valley, over the dozens of bridges that connected the land. He cared for it and its inhabitants as lovingly as did his father.
The Younger son loved the land as well and roamed it on his own, enjoying the fruit and swimming in the dancing streams. He loved the valleyfolk and gladly accepted their eager hospitality. There was no town, no farm, and no home where he wasn’t welcomed graciously and served generously.
The father had warned both sons about the dark place, the pool, and the voices of the earth. “Do not go there,” he said, “for the day you drink of the waters of the pool with no spring and no stream, you will be cut off from me.”
One day, the Younger was out riding his mount through the land enjoying the fruit and generous gifts of the people of the kingdom. The sunlight gleamed in his hair and warmed his skin. He rode his mount light and swift and lithe, laughing in the breeze.
When he came to a stop, his brow wet with perspiration and his garments clinging to his skin, he was thirsty. He ran a hand through his damp hair and looked about, listening for one of the abundant streams of the valley. Strangely, he neither saw nor heard one. He couldn’t recall the closest town but nor could he remember any place in the valley where he could not see or smell a stream.
And then he heard voices calling to him, voices that mingled with the wind and vaguely sounded like playful, splashing waters.
The animal beneath him stirred warily.
The Younger, his thirst teased by the distant sound of refreshment, prodded the mount to follow the voices deeper and deeper into a wood until the sun and the sky disappeared from the green canopy overhead. Ducking through a curtain of vines, the pair broke into a small opening in the wood where the animal stopped abruptly, shaking its head in protest and dancing backward through the curtain. Puzzled, the Younger spoke softly to it, but it continued to pull back in agitation.
The man dismounted and cast a calming hand on the animal’s twitching neck, trying to peer through the dense veil. The mount would not be dissuaded so the Younger released him and watched as the animal trotted a short distance away.
The man turned, lifted the tangle of vines that covered the opening, and walked into a shadowed glen where green seemed to have lost its love of life. The trees here were dark and unmoving like sentinels, and no birds made their homes in the tightly coiled branches. The ground beneath his booted feet was hard and grassless. The sweet and fluid voices continued to beckon him with their tempting melody from what he quickly realized was a small pool.
He frowned, for the sound was not coming from the water whose surface was still and dark, but rather it seemed to float and flow around him on a windless breeze, sighing with longing. As he approached the side of the pool, his nostrils flared at the scent of the water–clean, crisp, and cool–and he wondered if this sudden rush of anticipation was what his mount felt whenever he caught the aroma of refreshing waters on a hot day. The Younger licked his lips, yearning to slake his thirst, but he hesitated. The water was eerily still.
“You thirst,” said the voices, flowing over one another like a cascade. And he realized that they, like the sound of the water, came from everywhere and from nowhere.
“Yes,” he said.
“This is water. Drink.”
Still, he hesitated. The water looked dead, like a body whose life had been robbed of its breath. And then he knew where he was.
He started in fear. “My father warned me of this place. He said that on the day I drink of the waters of the pool with no spring and no stream, I would be cut off from him.”
“How could a simple sip of water cleave you from your father?” asked the waterfall of voices. “Surely you misheard him.”
“No,” said the Younger, but he didn’t move from the water’s edge.
And though the water lay dark and still, the Younger couldn’t help but be drawn to it.
“You said your father told you of this place.”
“Did he tell you all?” There was a change in the rushing sound of the voices, as if they no longer danced playfully but now rushed headlong in some indeterminate direction.
“He told my brother and me if we drank from the waters of the pool with no spring and no stream, we would be cut off.”
“Ah,” said the voices, “of course. This brother, is he not your elder, the heir to your father’s throne?”
“Your future king?”
“So you will have no kingdom.”
“I am not the heir.”
“What if…you could be?”
“I don’t understand.”
The voices whipped up the wind and shook the trees overhead. “The reason your father told you not to drink from the pool is because he knows that when you do, you will be king and he cut off. He does not want to be dethroned.”
“What of my brother? Has he never come here?”
“Why should he? He is heir. The throne and all the kingdom will be his someday. But for you, there is nothing.”
The Younger stared into the pool. His throat was arid, barren. He recalled all the flowing rivers he had passed that very morning and ached with longing. Why should he deny himself? He was the king’s son. Everything in the valley was his. The towns were his. The inhabitants were his. This pool was his. Was it true that one day when his brother took the throne that it would not be so? It was true that the Eldest never left their father’s side. Would he cut off the Younger? When his brother was king, would he, the Younger, be left with nothing?
But I could be king, he thought.
The voices, calm and confident, sighed like a caress through the dark trees. “Yes.”
What’s one drink when I’m so thirsty?
“So thirsty…” The voices echoed his thoughts.
The Younger leaned over the edge of the dark pool and stared at his reflection. A crown sat upon his head. His father’s crown. The king’s crown.
I could be king.
He dove both hands into the water, feeling it like ice on his skin, and created a smaller pool of his own hands. Just before he buried his face in his hands, he breathed deeply of the water. Its aroma was sweet beyond description, beyond any flowery scent he had experienced in his adventures over the valley, beyond any spring-fed stream from which he had partaken. Why had his father denied him this? This of all places, of all things?
And he drank.
The taste of it on his tongue was like no water he’d ever consumed. It coursed over his tongue and down his throat like the caress of a beautiful woman. It dribbled down the side of his face, down his neck, and across his chest, painting icy cool fingers across his skin.
Twice he thrust his hands in and drank. Three times. And then, as if inspired, he plunged his head into the black depths. Hands as gentle as a breeze and as forceful as a gale lifted his body over the edge and threw the rest of him in. The iciness closed around him like a blanket, seeping into every pore. And he let it, let it ebb away the heat, the thirst, the doubt. When he resurfaced, he felt as if he’d been reborn, as if every fiber of him had been scrubbed clean.
He moved to the side of the pool, hesitant to exit, but thought of his mount, still hot and thirsty just outside the glen. He hoisted himself from the water and sat on the pool’s edge, letting the water drain from his body. He watched curiously as the water evaporated almost instantly from his skin and was quickly replaced by a dull stinging. He frowned as the pain grew to an itching. He pulled at his shirt that had already dried on him and felt the burning. He ripped his shirt open and stared at the mottled skin on his once clean chest. He cried out, desperately wiping at the hot, stained skin.
When the shaking started, he thought it was coming from inside him, but then he saw the leaves on the dark trees quiver. The ground shuddered and then it was as if all the sounds of world had been swept away. The earth began to quake and roil beneath his feet. He ran for the vined opening and plunged through the curtain. A tearing sound came from the pool behind him and he glanced back between the swaying vines to see the black water pouring from an ugly crack that had ripped open the pool. The dark water that he had swam in, that he had drunk, that he had taken into his body, spilled onto the ground and began eating through the earthen floor like acid.
He ran for his terrified mount. She screamed and skittered away from him as if she didn’t recognize him, her eyes rolling in her head. He spoke to her, forcing his voice to calm. Then with one leap he was on her, kicking his heels into her sides. The animal plunged out of the wood as if trying to shake him from her back. He held on, hearing a huge ripping that echoed off the blackening sky and ricocheted in every direction of the valley.
He didn’t try to direct the animal. She ran instinctively, fleeing the menacing earth behind her. Only when the Younger recognized where they were did he try to stay her. She fought him until he pressed his legs deep into her sides, pulling on her tangled mane. Angrily she slowed, stomping her hooves in protest.
He glanced back in the direction they had come and gasped. The earth had begun to fall away as if into a great hole. In the distance, he watched as forests, bridges, and streams collapsed and disappeared out of sight. His eyes fixed on the mountain and the firm ground between himself and his home. He had to get back to tell his father what he had done, to apologize.
He turned the animal and sprinted toward the mountain, but it was as if the earth knew his intended path and crumbled before him, disappearing into the growing chasm. He turned again and sped as close to the precarious edge as he dared, pushing his mount, racing the very earth for purchase. But again, just as he reached each bridge or path leading toward his home, the earth thwarted him, dropping the ground out before him.
He turned again and raced on for what seemed like hours, the drowning earth ever one step ahead stealing a path, a bridge, or a stream right before him and sending it into the abyss.
With growing horror, he realized what was happening–he was being cut off.
His mount was heaving and foaming at the mouth. He kicked her forward begging her for one last run. Exhausted but still obedient, she responded, bolting forward toward the terminal thread hanging suspended—a bridge, the final span remaining to the base of the mountain. And then the last of the earth fell away from them, the bridge collapsing, the waters streaming down and down into the nothingness. The Younger pulled back on his ride to keep them both from pitching headlong into the fathomless moat that had formed around the mountain and his home.
The earth’s trembling began to ease like a storm moving off into the distance. The Younger stared at the new landscape before him, his breath coming in sharp gasps of disbelief. Slowly, he slid from the exhausted animal’s back. His legs, aching from their desperate hold on his mount, could not sustain him and he collapsed to his knees. Tears streaked clean lines down his dirty face and dripped onto the mottled oval stain on his exposed chest.
He gaped at the chasm that now stood between him and his father, between him and his home, the chasm that through his disobedience, he himself had created.
© 2015 Kim Pullen