It took a few days to reach Johannah’s bucolic hometown; it was a quaint little berg where the faces of the kindly villagers seemed perpetually creased with worry and fear. Every now and then, Johannah would nod and mutter a small “bonjour” to an elderly resident with whom she then exchanged small, worried smiles. She did not introduce Creighton to any of them, nor bothered to explain why, and he didn’t ask. As she led him through the streets, lingering shadows still fled from the early morning sun, as fluid and orange as the yolk of a fresh cracked egg, running down the mountains that hugged the town, as if God himself had decided to nestle the gentle people in an fortress of stone and trees. Every now and then, Johannah would stop in a shop (Creighton wondered if the little grocery of yesteryear was one of them, or if that particular shop even still existed), and exit with sundries and supplies.
Johanna then led Creighton quickly (or rather as quickly as his somewhat atrophied legs- though getting stronger- would carry him) through the winding streets, their irregular footfalls echoing ghostly from the paving stones beneath their feet and bounced fleetingly, softly off the still-sleeping houses. Finally, the scenery changed– the houses started to dwindle into farmland, and after a short while they stopped in front of the remnants of what once was a humble little stone cottage which was now in the process of being reclaimed by nature. Weeds had pushed through the wood and stone porch, and strong green vines had wound their way around the house as a whole, crushing it as gently as time demanded.
“Wait,” demanded Johannah in an impatient voice, though who she was impatient with he wouldn’t venture to guess. The entire experience thus-far had been wholly odd, almost as if in a dream, or if in a strange alternate place- cosmetically the same, but the cloth it was woven from was somewhat esoteric and unreal– something silky that slips through one’s fingers like sand, so that it took some effort to hold on to and not be lost completely within its folds.
Johannah entered the dilapidated structure, and emitted from within came some crashes and thuds, mingled with some oaths in French– finally she emerged with a small bundle, mostly of books tied together with twine; she held onto them firmly as if they were an invaluable treasure.
“Was…Is this your home?” asked Creighton, taking a knee on the overgrown paving stones that led to an opening that once held a sturdy door. His legs had finally regained their strength.
“No-no-no,” replied Johannah, shaking her head, “Not anymore. Without my family it’s just crumbling stone and rotting wood.
From the top of her bundle, she withdrew a cracked wooden frame that held a faded sepia-toned photograph. The picture was of a family, impeccably dressed- an older man and woman with stern faces but gentle eyes each had a hand on a child’s shoulder. One was a boy in his teens, who wore an ill-contained grin, and the other a young girl, faintly smiling as well, wholly unaware, it seemed, that she was being given the “bunny-ears” treatment by her elder brother. How he managed to hide this from his parents (the photographer clearly didn’t care to mention it) was beyond Creighton.
“Pictures were expensive… a luxury for us- when we received the print, my father was so angry, he said my brother couldn’t return home for supper unless he had a real rabbit, caught with his own two hands. He returned after dusk with several toads and a snapping turtle, each impressively decorated with makeshift ears constructed of leaves and sticks and twine. My father was aghast.
“’By the law of averages,’ said my brother with unparalleled bravado, ‘several of my rabbits, be they technically either amphibious or reptilian, should equal at least one of your traditional rabbits. Mine may be somewhat ghoulish in appearance compared to to your unfair standards of mammalian beauty, but I assure you, sir, they possess within their cold, thorny exteriors, proud hearts, both strong and noble.’
“At this point, my father was so exasperated that he simply waved my brother into the house, and let the ‘rabbits’ free in a little stream that ran behind our house. The matter was immediately dropped. My mother and I were extremely amused by the whole mess. There’s a lesson in there, somewhere, lost amongst bunny ears, whether applied to an unwitting sister, or unwitting amphibian. How he managed to ear that snapping turtle without losing some digits I will never know.”
“Perhaps the lesson is that in each toad beats the heart of a rabbit?”
“You may not be far off, doughboy,” replied Johannah with a sigh, “Come now, we still have enough daylight to reach the grotto. There is nothing here for either of us.”
Creighton nodded with a smile, squeezed her shoulder, and the two took a winding road that led them far from the outskirts of the villages; eventually the pavement dwindled to a worn, dirt footpath, and the manicured farmland grew into vast fields of fragrant, swaying yellow grasses. All around them were sights both a pristine and beautiful; above the grasses Creighton could see an almost aethereal vista of flowering hillocks and low sloping knolls which rose above verdant plains. A thin, clear stream whose wind-carried whispers wound its way around the scenery, until very abruptly, a wall of forest- thick and green- interrupted the plains, almost as if placed there for a purpose.
Strangely, the sun now indicated on its dimming countenance that it was late afternoon- just how long had they been walking? Neither thirst, nor hunger seemed to agree with the amount of time that had surely gone by. And just as suddenly as the forest had appeared, Johannah ushered him speedily under the canopy which let in only the smallest filaments of butter-yellow light, which did little to ease the otherworldly shadows that now surrounded them. Johannah, however, did not seem bothered in the least- the contented, thin smile, wide, excited eyes, and quickness of her footsteps indicated that she was, at least in some sense, home. She followed the ghost of her youth’s wanderings, effortlessly leading the way using well-known landmarks, visible only to her. Creighton walked very quickly, behind his companion, for he feared if he lost sight of her the forest may very well reclaim him much as any lost, or forgotten thing.
Finally (and a long finally at that) after an uncountable number of miles forming a doggedly determined march over small hills, sticky briars, and tree roots- all along some invisible path known only to Johannah- they reached what seemed to be a defined edge in the woods. The scent of pine was heavy and sappy, and the barest hint of a sleepy-sweet, floral aroma from unseen blooms lingered among them. Creighton knew, even without asking, that this was the Johannah’s childhood boundary- a line, drawn by her father so many years ago that she was forbidden to cross for her own safety. But now, things were different- surely, her father must have known something, because though visually the wall of scrub, thorn, and old trees was in keeping with the general aesthetic, there was something otherworldly– now, map in hand, somehow that boundary would be removed, and whatever was hidden for so long, would be brought to light.
They were now at a dead-stop. Johannah placed her pale hand upon the knot of a gnarled tree, and whispered in a sing-songy way,
‘Nous sommes du même sang, vous et moi’
“What did you say just then?” asked Creighton, holding his rifle, and peering into the sudden darkness cautiously.
“Just saying hello to old friends. Shoulder your rifle. We will be okay.”
“Bit quiet though, isn’t it?” said Creighton with an air of suspicion.
Johannah thought on this for a minute, then closed her eyes, bowed her head, and clapped twice as loud as she could, and immediately sound flooded the little clearing and the canopy above- birds, insects, and even the rustle of the leaves driven by a gentle wind (whose prior absence disturbed Creighton the most) began to speak again first murmuring and then swelling to full song, much to Creighton’s relief.
“Awake!” Johannah said with a childlike laugh, a broad grin spreading upon her thin lips, “Come!” she said to Creighton. She unfolded the little map, and whispered some small things to herself, which Creighton could not hear–though he felt that even if he could hear, he would have in no way understood it– and it had nothing to do with his general ignorance of French.
After scrutinizing the scribbles on the yellow paper, she made some strange signs with her hands, blinked twice, nodded, then patted that same mossy tree.
“I remember, Creighton…” she began with unfettered joy, “I remember all those little trails- I know just where this grotto will be found- this barrier was always my special place, and I daydreamed for so many spring and summer hours what was just beyond…I knew it was different because whenever I thought about crossing the ‘line’, I would fall asleep at once, then wake up at the edge of the forest. My mother would tell me that the trees themselves would carry me out, passing me from one branchy bough to another, as if I was being carried upon and by the canopy. My father, on the other hand, would just turn ghostly-pale, and forbid me from any manner of forest-induced somnolence. Of course, I never listened.”
A wistful, slightly pained look then occupied her delicate features.
“My parents died just as I was entering nursing school- old age- and my brother died early on in the war. Some things you don’t forget- they may fade a bit around the edges like my childhood picture, but certain things can bring them back with golden, untarnished clarity.
“I remember my father reading me stories as I sat on his lap, lulled to sleep the pum-pa-rum of his heartbeat and the smell of the tobacco from his pipe. I remember my mother telling my father fantastic stories of a place as that fallen friend, the freckled grocery-boy said, ‘Beyond the Ranges’. I wanted so much to believe…I nearly forgot, Creighton, but now… it’s back! My mother, she taught me how to wake the forest, and I did, and everything came rushing back, as solid and real and sweet as any memory could be.”
Creighton was at a loss for words, “Lead on Love,” was all he could think to say.
With a girlish laugh, she took Creighton firmly by the hand, and kissed him on the cheek.
“Don’t let go!” she gently chided, “All kinds of wonderful, terrible things lurk in the darker corners– blind in eye, but keen in ear, with snapping jaws and gleaming teeth!” She said this with a somewhat unfettered glee, as if this invisible menagerie of terrors were a welcome and necessary part of this strange part of the world Creighton found himself in.
Effortlessly, and as if by some strange magic, the two stepped through the thick wall of briars and brambles and thistles as if there was nothing there to begin with. And again, for what felt like countless hours, she again skipped along paths that only she could perceive, having somehow gained the knowledge from her strange interaction with the woods about them. When things got to quiet for Creighton’s comfort, she would again clap twice to coax the sound back into the woods; stranger still, she would press her hand against a stone, or tree-stump and nod, as if listening to something inaudible to Creighton. Then, just as the last streams of light ceased to thread through the thick canopy, and an even deeper darkness overtook the area, Johanna stopped dead in her tracks, yawned and rubbed her eyes.
“Should we… do you want to make camp?” asked Creighton, again having taken the rifle from his shoulder and into his hands. He then took a swig of water from his canteen and offered it to Johannah, who greedily took several gulps.
“No, no- we’re here! Here is the grotto!” Johannah merely motioned towards another thick wall of prickly things.
“I- Johannah, I can’t see it- I just see a wall of-”
“No-no-no!” she said, slapping him hard on the arm, “You’re looking at it too close… avert your looking… see it from the corner of your eyes.”
Creighton turned his head slightly and indeed did see not a deeper darkness, but rather a very dim flicker of light, as if some torch burned in the recesses of a well hidden cave.
“You see it now too, yes?” Creighton could almost see the excitement radiating off of Johannah- her Cheshire smile shone in the dark.
“Now… now! Creighton, don’t move your eyes. Look at the glow. Take my hand, now…RUN!”
The two, Johanna at the lead, ran headlong towards that little soft murmur of light, and Creighton tried desperately not to think of how bad death-by-thistles would be– he gritted his teeth, squeezed Johannah’s hand, and allowed her to pull him into that little glow. No thistles clung, no prickers pricked, and moments later he found himself flat on the cool, stony ground of a cave, Johannah sprawled on top of him, cowl askew, and hair hanging in messy strands.
“You’re heavy,” said Creighton, head spinning, “You’re heavy and I’m breathing gravel into my lungs.”
Ignoring this, Johannah stood up proudly, and took in her surroundings. On the wall to their left was a torch sconce. Johannah took the light, and Creighton readied his gun. Clearly, they had left whatever little familiarity of the waking world behind, and truthfully Creighton had no idea what they would encounter, or if a bullet from a rifle would do anything to stop it– but he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to at least look prepared.
“Well, you did it…I never would have thought it possible but…here we are.” Creighton’s voice trailed off in a tone of distinct wonder; he then promptly crossed himself.
“I knew it!” Johannah in an excited whisper, “And I’m not heavy.”
“No, no, of course not,” replied Creighton, uncertain as to how to respond to what he felt was of the least concern, considering their present situation, “I meant it in a good way, of course. You’ve a gorgeous, hourglass figure, and…um…”
“Quiet, you charming oaf. Take a look around, and let’s go! Oh, something grand is just around the corner- I can feel it!”
Creighton mumbled something, and the two cautiously made their way through the stony corridor. When they reached a corner, the turned around it to find, much to their surprise, a brightly lit chamber. The lair they found was also rather…human, and almost disturbingly so. The floor was covered with a dusty, but elegant oriental rug , all red and with a golden, intricate pattern- a veritable maze to the eyes. Perched on a small end-table was a tasteful lamp, providing sufficient, though dull yellow illumination to the habitation. On the right of the cavern was a plain wooden door, and one would have assumed the whole sight was completely normal reading room, but there was just one small detail that robbed the little room of its familiarity–
it was a throne of human skulls, and sitting upon it was something hideous, though it looked laid-back enough as it sat askew on the throne, legs crossed over one gruesome arm, a glass of brandy swirling in it’s clawed hand.
“Hi there!” It said in a purely friendly and gregarious voice– though Creighton, startled by the juxtaposition of the horror monster and his magnanimous welcome, accidentally discharged his rifle. The bullet missed the beast’s head by a wide birth, but hit and shattered a skull at the peak of the charnel throne.
“Yorrick- no!” the thing shrieked, pulling its legs up, knees to his chest , “Osinnblyxx Tap-dancing Xuluksv!”
Creighton and Johanna exchanged glances of mutual confusion at this outburst, wondering how anything with so few vowels could actually tap-dance.
“Just what the hell is wrong with you, man?! I said ‘Hi There!’ in good faith and you nearly take off my head!” The thing drained its glass, and belched angrily, a little puff of purple smoke emitting from its nostrils.
“I- I’m sorry sir,” said Creighton, as contrite as he was confused, “You just startled me. You have to understand that we don’t usually run into…whatever you are…regularly.”
And “whatever it was” would have been a good question. Though the face of the beast was vaguely human, though beaked (or rather like a birdish, red-faced macaque), his torso, down to his clawed and thumbed hands and feet were somewhat feathered and even reptilian. Patches of grey fur were present in odd places- on the tip of his broad and bulbous nose, the points of his elbows, and in a halo around his navel, which did little to settle the stomachs of the two baffled, human interlopers.
“I can see what you’re thinking,” replied the beast in a tone that betrayed sheer boredom, “To answer your question, I’m what happens when a lowland Sasquatch has too many martinis in the company of a subterranean lizard woman. You’re lucky though- the bloke before me would have killed you, attempted to question your bodies, then added to his throne. A real reactionary, that one.” The beast sighed and shook his head, looking up as if holding the previous …guardian thing in his memory.
“Anyway,” said the beast, refilling his glass with sweet brandy, “My name is Boondoggle P. Skunitez, and I am beyond pleased to meet you both.”
“Likewise,” said Johannah with a polite courtesy; she elbowed Creighton, who promptly bowed politely.
“Sir-” started Creighton, but was interrupted by the beast.
“Boondoggle- and believe me I am beyond appreciative, but why haven’t you killed us yet?”
“I was wondering that too,” said Johannah, nonplussed.
“Well, that would be rather rude, wouldn’t it? I don’t like messily devouring people who I’ve just met. Bad etiquette. Oh, how I hate impolite scenes. Oh, and in anticipation of your next question, Osinnblyxx Xuluksv is the now ousted god of monsters- new management, and all that. We still worship him, but usually only on the main holidays. He was a real miserable bastard. When he ate the head off the previous god of monsters, he assigned me this little cave, and a little job, and all this luxury.”
(His tone was clearly bitter and resentful, but then, wouldn’t yours be?)
Boondoggle stretched his eerily long arms and yawned, managing to spill what little driblets were left in his drink in the process, which elicited a melancholy cry of “My Beverage!” from his beakish mouth.
“Well, that’s the last of it,” Boondoggle sighed, “Ugh, I can just feel sobriety creeping up on me. Now I’m going to have to go back to taming stalactites… that is, as much as one can tame an inanimate pointed rock. Anyway, here’s my spiel.”
Here, Boondoggle (in a quite elegant way) explained that he was the guardian of a book of ivory and leaves which held the secrets to the “Peace Cries”. He said that there were many hidden places that all led to one to the “Peace Trials” themselves; that the guardians of the books were all different, and one must pass not only obtain the Book, but pass all the trials if they wished to find the so called “Crown of Fools” which led to a Kingdom of unimaginable wealth– you know, that old chestnut. Naturally, Johannah and Creighton were cautiously enchanted by the tale, as the garish creature explained everything in vivid detail.
“Of course,” said Boondoggle at the end of his lengthy explanation, “I can’t simply give you the book. There are seventeen separate feats you must undergo, and they all contain the phrase ‘to the death’. I’ll give you two kids a few minutes to decide what to do.”
Johannah chewed her lip nervously, but Creighton, for the first time on that crazy adventure he had found himself joyfully tangled in, reached into the provisions Johannah had purchased and pulled out the answer to their problem.
“Counter offer,” said Creighton, holding something large in his hand, wrapped in brown paper and tied with thin string.
“Nice!” squealed Boondoggle, “I do love a counter-offer. You’d be surprised how many people just run at me with a bit of wood with a nail in it. I mean, please- if you’re going on some grand adventure, why would you bring nothing but a bit of wood with a nail in it?”
“What happens to them?” asked Johannah, her voice all curiosity and no fear.
“Oh, well, you know how much I hate scenes of bad etiquette. I devour them. Oh, now, come on- I am a beast after all- it’s a knife and fork business, pinky up whilst I hold the cup, and all that.”
“Wow,” said Johannah.
“Wow, indeed, young lady,” said Boondoggle with a wink and a smile.
Creighton cleared his throat.
“Ah yes! The counter offer. OK, hu-man, hit me with your best shot.” Boondoggle mincingly clapped his hands quickly together, much like he had just received a fancy car on his sweet-sixteen.
Creighton unwrapped the paper, and tossed the wrapping into a nearby wastepaper basket, and presented to Boondoggle a full quart of unopened French brandy. Boondoggle’s eyes darted from the liquor, to Creighton, then back and forth again half a dozen times, as if in disbelieve.
“Deal!” Boondoggle finally yelled, gingerly taking the bottle from Creighton’s hands, “Liquor-drinks,” he muttered with no small amount of pleasure. He then coddled the bottle as if it were something delicate and precious, like a newborn baby.
“Book’s behind the door,” said Boondoggle with a quiet smile, “Take it and you’ll find yourself again in the forest. The book is your map to surviving the trials there… oh, don’t worry- it’s heavily annotated– you kids will do just fine. Too much time on my hands, oh me, oh my…” Boondoggle trailed off, rocking the liquor back and forth, cooing to it softly. And even in a place like this, standing before the chimeric disaster that was Boondoggle, the most unsettling part was how he whispered sweet-nothings to the swishing, brown liquid.
“Well, Mr. Boondoggle, it was a pleasure to meet you, we shall be on our way,” said Johanna; Creighton offered his hand to shake.
“Oh, handshake nothing! Bring it in for a hug!”
And so, the two humans stood awkwardly in the embrace of the Yeti-Lizard known as Boondoggle, offering him occasional pats on the back, while trying not to jolt away from the texture of his snakeskin. The two then left by the very normal door, which promptly disappeared behind them when it was shut.
“Did he squeeze your rear end too?” asked Creighton with no small amount of discomfort.
* * * * *
As Boondoggle had promised, the two indeed found themselves in a forest- though it was more of a path through the trees, the vines and branches hanging oddly low. Following the riddles and rhymes in the book (with invaluable help of Boondoggle’s notes, even if they contained the occasional, crudely sketched “johnson”), they were able to surpass handsy monkeys, angry trees, and bloated basilisks. Johannah delivered a swift kick to the groin of a stony elephant with a strange concept of the word “jest” and they bolted through the gnome cave (no skeletons were present at thar time), as Johannah had promised another dragon-kick to the pachyderm’s coin-purse if he didn’t warn them of danger. Finally, after ages and ages and ages of timeless seconds and hours that didn’t seem to take any true toll on their person, they found a singularly beautiful steppe; there were grassy fields, far-off trees, and plenty of flatland for habitation and farming.
After making camp and watching the sun as it lingered, half hidden below the hills, they lovingly fell into each other, and awoke hours later to find that the sun never quite set upon them and their new found land– it was bathed eternally in the hours just prior to dusk, and a lovely breeze seemed ubiquitous. A permanent sunset, a whispering breath of a breeze with just the right amount of chill– it wasn’t a kingdom, but it was as close to a paradise as either of them could imagine; most of all, and after all they’d been through, it was a welcomed and well deserved, quiet rest.