We had come to the place where the lava sky dripped into flowing peaks, which cooled to rocky crusts even as we watched.
You pointed to the nearest one, still red with inner heat. “Shall we climb?”
I knew you weren’t in earnest. “I’d love to, except…”
Except that the newly-formed mountain would be oozing fiery rocks that can slip easily underfoot. Or it might erupt in a shuddering tantrum and spew rolling plumes of ash to choke the slopes. Best to observe from a distance.
We had been sent here to discover the cause of the melting sky — a marvel to some, a terror to others — and were loaded down with more equipment than either of us had worked with before. I spent the entire morning checking batteries, looking through manuals, and calibrating sensors while you drove us in a borrowed Jeep across the sandstone desert.
By the time we reached the edge of the plain the sky had turned from a gemlike blue to a chalky white. When the road ran out, we packed up the gear and began hiking over a series of gray rock ridges, watching the sky take on an intense yellow glow as we got closer to our destination. The air smelled of solar wind and the ground radiated a comforting warmth.
Somehow I got stuck with most of the load, which must have weighed over 50 kilos altogether.
“Would you like to carry the seismograph?” I had asked, purely out of politeness. It wouldn’t fit in the packs, so we’d have to lug it by the handle.
“No. You need it to balance the weight of the tripod in your other hand.” Kind of you to think of that.
Once we got below the swirling sky we found a flat spot and immediately began setting up the instruments. No time to waste — we’d have to take a lot of measurements if we wanted to get to the bottom of this mystery.
I handed you the tripod so you could attach the camera, while I pulled out the portable spectrometer, thermal imager, magnetometer, and a snack. We concentrated on arranging the equipment and making adjustments.
I had opened my notebook to jot down the date and time when you said, “Wait. Just look up for a minute. Can you feel it?”
I paused and lifted my eyes. “Yes.” We both stood still and watched. “It seems so obvious now.”
This corner of the sky had become infatuated with Apollo’s glory, gathering in all the sun had to give, embracing its heat and light and energetic particles until the atmosphere itself had grown heavy with mineral fire, a golden fervor that flowed above us. Then here and there it burst forth to share its treasure with the earth, a passionate outpouring of joy gushing down to form radiant mountain peaks born of sunlight and love.
Of course, no one had discovered this earlier.
The drone that was first sent here to investigate lacked any devices able to sense the emotional interplay of earth and sky and stars, which has been going on for eons. That’s what eluded the geophysicists and meteorologists who pored over the data the drone obediently delivered. Only by standing under the sky could one understand the celestial phenomenon that had baffled science.
“I guess we can turn these things off,” you said. “We won’t be needing them.”
“Right. Might as well save the batteries.”
We had hauled the carefully-calibrated equipment all this way for nothing. But at least we could write up a decent report. This wasn’t a dangerous anomaly or ecological disaster, inhospitable though it may be to life. This was simply the wild delirium of planets and stars at play.
We sat down to enjoy the scene for a while. We couldn’t fully appreciate the sky’s rapture, but like these mountains, we too were born of sunlight, in a way — and certainly made of cosmic dust, as any astronomer would acknowledge. I took a few notes as another peak flowed into existence out near the horizon.
Our conclusion: No one would be building condos here anytime soon. Though it was a suitable location for an impenetrable fortress.
“If I were an evil wizard,” I said as we were packing up to go, “I’d put my magic castle at the top of that peak. Wouldn’t have to worry about unexpected visitors. Air conditioning might get expensive, though.”
“No, I’m thinking it would make a perfect spot for a dragon’s lair. Nice place to raise the little ones.”
I suggested that my wizard might like having your dragons around. You said that would be lovely.
Kindly people who thought they knew just where I wanted to go had no hesitation in telling me exactly how to get there. Opinions, advice, and directions they offered, no matter how wrong or misguided.
A scruffy old soul I bumped into that morning saw I was traveling alone. He looked ahead where my feet were aimed and gave me his perspective.
“You’ll want to take the smoother road. It’ll get you there much quicker.”
Where? I don’t think he knew, and nor did I care. There’s always some there that people will tell you is better than here — “and here’s how to get there.” I thanked him and kept on my own winding way.
I was having a bite at an inn around noon, when the owner, who I didn’t know, came up and said, “You should talk to that man,” pointing to someone outside. “He can give you a ride into town. Save you time. That’s where you’re going, I’m sure.”
No, not into town, not anywhere near. It would save me no time to go there.
Farther along as I parted tall weeds that grabbed me with nettles and thorns, a farmer who led a stray cow let me know that I was on the wrong path.
“There’s nothing here for a traveler like you. Go back, go back, the road’s not this way. Can’t you read signs? Don’t you know where you are?” He shouted and pointed across the damp field.
But I didn’t seek signs or roads or lost cows. Those are for others to follow.
I thanked him and turned back to stumbling through weeds, then came upon a patch of wildflowers bright in the afternoon sun. Petals of yellow and orange they had, a touch of white in the middle, gently waving atop green stems, friendly but taken aback by my presence, laughing and curious and asking why I trod so far from well-trodden roads.
I explained how those roadways let no wild things grow to charm a traveler like me. I’d rather cross a muddy meadow, encountering blossoms by happy chance, than trudge along pavement with traffic’s dull flow. Serendipity favors the wildflower-seeker who wanders where wildflowers grow. So I told them, and left them still laughing while I continued on.
Then a fellow of unfunny jest took my arm and waggled a finger at me.
“Traveling’s the thing, if you do it right. You’ll need a good map, good shoes and a compass. Take lots of water and carry a stick. Watch out for wolves, they stalk you at dusk, or maybe at dawn. Be ready for both, I would say. You might feel lonely and maybe get lost, but chewing on beetroot will cure that.”
“You’ve traveled a lot?” I asked him politely, not caring to hear his reply.
“Never done it myself, of course not, no. But it seems to be easy enough. And I know these things, so I’m telling you plain. Helping you out, don’t you see?”
I didn’t challenge his wisdom; sometimes it’s best just to nod. There weren’t any wolves, I could tell him. Though twice I’ve been chased by bees.
That’s the risk in taking advice from those who know only their world. Or not even that — some talk just to talk, discoursing on all they don’t know. Just to be helpful, you see?
And all these good folks in their ways and their places, they thought that I wanted the same. Where I was going, they couldn’t be bothered to ask.
Our guide lay on the cot, delirious with fever. You sat next to him, wiping the sweat off his face, while I conferred with the old woman attending him — his grandmother, I think. This was her hut.
“I need this flower,” she said, showing me a picture of what looked like a begonia with deep red petals, growing on a vine. “It cures the fever. Powerful medicine. But… it grows in the forest,” she gave me a dark, meaningful look and shook her head, “across the lake.”
You looked up at me when she said that.
It would take two full days to hike there and back, but our guide wouldn’t last that long. He was dying, and we had less than a day to save him.
I pulled you aside. “We have to get some of those flowers — today.”
“That means crossing the lake.” You looked out the door toward the water. “What about the stories?”
Creatures, it was rumored, lived below the surface. Or the lake just swallowed up whoever dared disturb its peace. Either way, no one had made it across the water in recent memory. The locals did their fishing standing knee-deep in the shallows and kept their dinghies close to shore.
“Stories like that have never stopped us before.”
“True,” you said. “And we owe it to Charlie.”
Our guide — Charlie was the anglicized name he called himself — had agreed to take time off from his university studies in anthropology to see us over the mountain and down the rapids. He had grown up in these parts and the expedition would give him a chance to visit family. Plus, he liked us. Or maybe he just liked you.
We had come down the river in canoes with Charlie and a few other helpers he had organized into an efficient team. But on the third day out he had fallen ill with what one local called loop-loop fever, making a circling motion with his hand.
That evening we reached Charlie’s village — a stopping point on our journey — but his condition worsened overnight. By the next morning, he was on the edge of death, so you and I volunteered to go fetch some healing flowers.
The day had dawned clear and bright, though we were ragged and tired from having been up all night with the patient, helping his grandmother in whatever way we could. The small village was noisily bustling as people went about their everyday tasks. We could hear macaws squawking in the woods and children screaming at play. Hardly the setting for a horror scene, we thought, briefly forgetting the warnings about underwater monsters. We couldn’t know that the lake was already starting to weave its calming spell, imbuing us with a false sense of confidence.
“It will only take an hour or so to cross,” we told each other. “And we’re not exactly novices on the water.”
As we walked down to the shore the old woman stopped us. I thought she was going to recite some ancient blessing or give us a magical talisman to ward off danger, but all she said was, “Take guns.”
But we hadn’t brought any guns on this trip. You wore a double edge boot knife strapped to your ankle; I carried my hunting knife in a belt sheath. They’d have to do against whatever was out there.
We pushed off in our wooden canoe. “Why again am I the one paddling?” I asked.
You leaned over the side near the front, eyes intent upon the water. “You offered me the paddle,” you said, “and I politely refused.”
Just as well. You’d be better at sensing trouble ahead.
The lake was calm under a sunny sky. We’d normally expect to see fish breaking the surface to catch insects, but today nothing stirred. I recalled a Latin proverb: Be on your guard against a silent dog and still water. There were no dogs about, but we were surrounded by still water, ominously smooth and quiet.
“Maybe there’s a reason the fish aren’t jumping,” I said, on my guard. “Something has scared them away.”
You glanced back at me. “Us, perhaps?”
I shook my head. “Even the dragonflies are staying away.”
“Something below, then.”
I paddled as quietly as I could, wary of creating any more disturbance than necessary, and settled into a steady rhythm. The reflective, serene water had a soothing effect. There’s nothing to fear, it seemed to say, nothing to fear.
By the time we were halfway across, I had stopped scanning for danger and let my mind relax, fixing my gaze straight ahead, focused on nothing. You seemed to be staring out across the water at something far away. Your head started to nod and I could feel my eyes drooping.
The lake had lured us into lowering our guard, tempting us with daydreams. Pleasant images floated into our thoughts, of swimming and sailing and lazy days on the shore under flowering trees, of warm sunshine and cool splashing water, and just drifting, drifting…
A loud thump! shook us awake as the canoe was rammed from below.
“Creatures!” you shouted. “Turn around!” But it was too late.
We were rocked from side to side while I dug in with the paddle and tried to keep us steady. The water roiled menacingly around us. A swarm of weedy coils, green and slimy, turned somersaults below, slapping the hull with a wet thwack-thwack-thwack, nearly cracking the wood planking.
“I must have dozed off,” you said apologetically.
“We both did, from lake-spell. It didn’t even use fog.”
Most malicious bodies of water summon up a creeping mist to confuse casual boaters and waylay sea-weary sailors. But that can rouse the suspicions of explorers like us who are familiar with such conventional devices. This lake had simply lulled us into a trance. I could have kicked myself — the proverb should have been warning enough.
“I’ll see what we’re up against,” you said, and leaned over to take a quick look in the water. That was all the creatures needed.
A long, leafy tentacle shot out of the lake and wound itself around your waist. You tried pushing back against the gunwale, but the thing lifted you up and pulled you over the side, nearly swamping the canoe.
I threw my weight the other way for balance. The hull splashed back to equilibrium and I was struck by a sudden feeling of emptiness. The water was still, the canoe rocked gently, and you were gone.
I unsheathed my knife and dove in.
The clear water let through plenty of sunlight, giving me a good look at the scene. You were struggling against several creatures that had you in their grasp. What were these things?
Each one had a round, meter-wide body that looked like a mass of lakeweed bundled into a loosely wound ball, swirling in constant motion as if powered by an internal whirlpool, with two or three tentacles made of grassy stalks braided into strong limbs as thick as my arm.
Some of them gripped moss-covered stones scooped up from the lake bottom and wielded with a powerful might. One slammed me in the side and nearly knocked my breath out. I slashed its bundle of stems clean through, then hacked at a growth of clasping leaves that was wrapping itself around my leg.
Once loose, I swam toward you, but the creatures blocked me and shoved me back. I popped up to the surface for another gulp of air, saw the canoe was still close by, and ducked back under for another bout of knifework.
A few of them held you by your waist and both wrists. I swam down to your ankles and grabbed your knife, then I shoved my way up through the slimy weeds, handed you the knife, and cut the tentacle gripping that arm. You started fighting back against the creatures attacking you while I went to work on the others.
I saw you free yourself and go up for a breath. But I was busy being dragged down by three weed monsters, with both my arms clutched by stalks, unable to use my knife.
I was deep enough to see the activity stirring the carpet of lakeweed on the bottom. It seemed as if some intelligent force was creating violent eddies that churned up the growth and swirled it into living shapes, which sprouted twisting limbs and surged forth from the muddy womb, like the seething thoughts of a malevolent being.
Water and weeds coalesced to form mindless beasts that had no evolutionary bond to the realm of blooded animals, warm or cold. Lacking hearts, brains, and souls, they were ruthless.
My lungs were beginning to burn and the chill water was numbing my head. We’d have to get out of here quickly or be lost to the terrors of the lake.
I caught a glimpse of your black blade swishing through the water near me, slicing through the writhing green stems of my captors with fierce precision, until I was no longer bound and could rejoin the battle. Unable to thwart our savage attacks, the lake creatures finally retreated and sank back to the murky bottom.
We waited a few seconds to make sure they were gone, then swam to the surface and climbed into the canoe.
“It was just lakeweed and water,” you said, wringing out your hair.
I wiped the drops from my face and picked up the paddle. “Seems to be a lot of it growing down there.”
“But they weren’t scaly at all. They weren’t even real creatures.” You sounded disappointed.
“Next time,” I said, “let’s get dragged into the deep by a monstrous squid — a bona fide sea creature. I know of an ocean where we could—”
“At least it would be flesh and blood. Not like these… these leafy green things.” You made it sound like we’d been attacked by a giant salad.
Still, the lake had made its point, and we now knew what lay hidden beneath its calm demeanor — a beastly hostility submerged in its watery consciousness, ready to lash out should anyone trespass on its domain. By nurturing such a mean reputation, the lake was left alone to enjoy a more peaceful existence, for whatever that was worth.
The bright sun soon dried us off, and we reached the far shore in less than an hour. But we had lost precious time, so after pulling the canoe up onto safe ground we immediately set off on our hunt.
The forest surrounded us with a pleasant chorus — trees and bushes rustling in the breeze; insects buzzing and humming; birds flapping about and chirping, though never quite breaking into song; the hesitant, thudding charge of a snuffling young boar, which we chased off — reassuring sounds that told us no silent threat lurked nearby.
We found the life-saving flower without further incident. You waved away some bees, who gave you an annoyed look, and we gathered enough of the medicinal red petals to fill a small sack. As we headed back I said I’d like to spend all day exploring this part of the forest. You thought that was just a delaying tactic to avoid meeting the creatures again.
We stood a moment on the shore and gazed out across the water, thinking about our return trip.
“Not all adventures should be repeated,” I said quietly. I didn’t know if that was a proverb, but it sounded wise and Tolkienesque.
“You mean, we’d be better off not crossing again.” Neither of us wanted to provoke the lake a second time. “But we have to get back soon,” you insisted. “We don’t have a choice.”
“Well, at least we know what to expect now.”
We lifted the canoe and set it in the water. I offered you the paddle again.