This is one of the (few) completed stories I’ve written, and it’s mostly polished for my liking, though I tend to tinker with it from time to time. (Bad habit, that.) It’s also short, about 2244 words in length. The title? Ah, the title. When I first wrote this (way back in a creative writing class), I had a title that was overly oblique and really had nothing to do with the story; it was more reflective of my trying to be clever with the inspiration for the story. I’ve since ditched it. It’s for the best. Suggestions would be welcome.
As usual, this is freely available and copyrighted under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Go nuts.
"How will I know where to go?" the boy asked.
"You will know," his father said simply.
And so he found himself at the edge of the village at dawn the next day. Beyond the oasis of the village lay the vast expanse of the desert, yellow-brown sands glowing red in the rising sun. On the horizon lay the thin, dark line that was the forest. The morning air was silent and dry and filled with the acrid scent of cooking smoke—the boy breathed deep the aroma of spice-cakes.
With a single glance back at the village, he set out into the desert. He carried nothing. He walked in the direction of the forest, as he had seen the adults do.
Before long the sun was halfway to its zenith. The heat made the air shimmer, and the boy wiped droplets of moisture from his forehead. He swallowed. The line of forest was thicker now, a dark green flickering under the iron sky. Two hours, maybe three. It was difficult to judge. He walked at a steady pace.
The desert sands were littered with occasional brown rocks and tiny cactuses. Once the boy saw a small patch of scrub brush, and he stopped to investigate. He picked several blades and chewed on them, spitting out the pulp. There were no signs of any other creature aside from himself; the desert was silent, swallowing the boy’s footsteps. His nostrils flared; the still, heated air was dry and crisp.
He stopped only once for a brief respite. Kneeling in a tiny basin at the base of a dune, he tossed pebbles at the grayish sprouts of vegetation. He squirmed slightly, the sun’s heat making his shoulders itch, and after a few minutes he continued on his journey.
The sun was high when a cool breeze from the forest dried the moisture on his face. He could see the individual trees now, and grasses and prickly brush, encroaching on the crusted sandy surface. Breathing hard and swallowing dryly (his throat made a clicking noise), the boy trotted the remaining yards and sat down in the shade of the nearest tree, closing his eyes and licking his lips.
When he was rested he rose and began to wander aimlessly along the edge of the woods. He did not know the name of the forest, but a vague remembrance of a time when he was very young drifted to the surface of his mind.
They had been sitting around an evening fire, the children behind the adults. The adults had been speaking of random things, all meaningless until his father had begun to talk.
"It approaches the season of drought," his father had said to general murmurs of agreement. "The forest will be drying; we must act with caution."
A near-adult had timidly posed the question, "What is there to be cautious of?"
"With dryness comes fire." His father had said no more, but as predicted, later that year a minor fire consumed a part of the forest; the boy’s father had brought back from it a blackened piece of wood, and the boy had closely examined the heat-blemish with fascination.
The boy ran his hand along the trunk of a tree; it was smooth, and he had not seen any blemishes or scars among the trees here. He wondered where the fire had occurred. Glancing around at the outer edge of the woods, the boy advanced into the forest.
The trees were tall, some with thick, green-brown smooth trunks, others with rough, light brown bark. Sunlight cascaded irregularly through the treetops, spattering the ground yellow and brown. There was a loamy, musty smell to the area. The boy pushed aside thick prickly underbrush, going slowly. He made his way deeper into the forest for what felt like an hour; then he stopped.
Running water could be heard, faint but distinct. The boy turned his head in the direction and began to work his way toward the sound. He fought the stiff thicket; soon scratches appeared on his hands and arms. After several minutes he broke through to a small clearing in the forest, with a shallow creek quietly gurgling through the trees; he fell to his stomach at the bank and drank greedily, lifting water to his face with tired hands, not noticing the flat, near-metallic taste.
He rested there, for nearly half an hour. Finally the boy lifted himself to his feet, and moved on again. He followed the twisting of the creek upstream, avoiding the dense undergrowth and staying on the bright green grass that sprang up on the creek’s edge. The words of his father echoed through his head: You will know. He wondered where he was heading.
Sunlight was suddenly warm on his face; he had discovered another, larger clearing. Looking about, he thought he caught a sudden glimpse of movement on the edge of his vision, but when he turned his head there was nothing.
You will know. The boy smiled. At the far end of the clearing there were broken branches and bent leaves; a well-worn path led deeper into the shadows of the forest, away from the creek. He began toward the path, then looked back at the creek, then at the path, then at the water again. He frowned; the underbrush near the creek bank was very sparse—easy traveling. But the path…a snatch of a phrase drifted through his head: "…it has made all the difference." He looked once more at the trail into the woods, then abruptly turned and began walking along the bank of the creek, upstream.
He looked back often. The sun was becoming low in the sky, but still he pushed forward, chewing a lip and looking back. He was at the verge of turning around when he stopped, tilting his head slightly.
Not far away there could be heard a muffled roaring, and if he concentrated, the ground seemed to vibrate along with the rumbling. Excited, he scrambled along the bank, and gasped when he reached another clearing.
A tumbling cascade of water, enormous, poured from a high rocky cliff face, spraying droplets and a fine mist outward in a shifting brilliance of rainbows. Below that was a boiling frothy cauldron contained in a small grotto, with many little creeks and one large one stemming from it. There was a thick, damp aroma pulsating throughout the clearing with the mist. Breathing deep, the boy watched the spouting waterfall for an uncertain amount of time, tilting his head this way and that to watch the rainbows shift and shimmer, mist cooling his face. Then, with a shiver, he realized he was standing in shadows; the sun had slipped to the horizon.
The boy worked his way around the pool and streams to the base of the cliff. It was not high—he estimated it at six of his heights—but the waterfall was very wide, which added to the impression of grandeur. Pulling his gaze from the sight, he began to climb the rocky wall, searching slowly for handholds.
It was completely dark when he reached the top, stars spackling the sky. He was standing on a wide plateau, the river twisting before him along the moderately wooded landscape, glowing slightly in the starlight. The boy turned, and sighed. The forest he had laboriously traveled through stretched before him, dark; just beyond that, perhaps four or five miles or so distant, the hot desert sands brightly encompassed the view. He had spent half a day working his way through a fraction of his journey. He sighed again.
For the second time that day he glimpsed movement; spinning quickly, there was nothing. He thought it might be shadows, then thought it odd that he had seen no animals.
A short distance from the river, away from the roaring of the waterfall, he discovered a niche in a grove of medium-sized trees, pleasantly smelling of moss. He pulled some grass and spread it on the ground, and curled up on it. The night was warm. His belly growled fiercely and he swallowed, but he eventually drifted into a fitful sleep.
The rising sun woke him, golden sunlight pouring warmly through the trees. His belly growled, and again, loud, and the boy uncurled himself and stretched, yawning the vestiges of sleepiness away. The river water was cold; he drank and splashed his face. Breakfast—his only meal, he ruminated wistfully—consisted of jinjin roots he dug up, earthy and brownish and bland, the bright green leafy plant sprouting from the riverbank, half submerged. Then he continued on his way, wondering just what it was he was looking for. The traveling was not as slow as the day before; the trees were sparser and there was less underbrush, replaced by a steppe-like grass, light green in color. A breeze swayed the treetops, an occasional leaf fluttering to the ground. Birds glided about, singing and chirping. Once the boy even surprised a striped gray squirrel (the first animal!), who scolded him thoroughly before vanishing up a tree.
His mind wandered; he wondered when he would come to his goal. He wondered what his goal actually was; he remembered watching the adults coming back to the village from their trips, packs laden with unknown but sometimes fragrant goods slung over their shoulders. He never actually knew what was in the packs, and was never told anything save that they were to supply the village. As a young child the thought of the packs of unknown goods had never preoccupied him. It was probably food; the village gardens were plentiful, but had to have their limits. He wiped sweat from his brow. Only, he had not seen any kind of food except for the roots he had eaten.
A drop of water landed on the boy’s nose. He jerked, then stopped, looking up. The sky was clear—it was nearly midday, had he been walking, lost in thought, that long? He must be hungrier than he thought—and the river was calm—
Another drop hit, directly in the eye. He shook his head, wiping the eye. Rain? A thought struck him—a remembrance, a hunger-fantasy—he looked up suddenly, a lump of excitement forming in his belly. He hurried on, jogging now, eyes flicking all around and upward.
As he advanced up along the river, droplets splattered him more and more frequently, yet the sky remained stubbornly free of clouds. The river seemed to be rapidly growing wider ever further upstream, and the banks grew steeper, and more rocky; the ground above the river was sloping upwards. There were no birds singing now, anywhere. When he arrived at a ridge of rock rising before him, craggy and abrupt, the rain was pelting down steadily.
Climbing the rocks, up away from the river, he suddenly came to the top. A valley lay before the boy, wide and shallow. The river cleaved its way below; a channel cut through the steep valley walls near the boy, forming a neat outcropping where the boy now stood, overlooking the water. Trees were much more frequently clumped here, and the steppe grass gave way to a luscious green. The air was fresh and clean. Rain was drizzling throughout though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky; he gasped, his exciting suspicions confirmed. He had heard the adults speak of this, in a tone similar to that of gossip, or storytelling—the Valley of the Rain! He knew very little about it, only that it was difficult to find: the magic of the phenomenon caused it to, well, move from time to time. He licked his lips, rubbing his hands together, and almost giggled when his stomach groaned painfully. Just below where he stood, there was an orchard of some sort of fruit trees; the boy laughed out loud (you will know) when he realized that he had made it.
"Congratulations. You actually passed three of our orchards and two granaries." The boy turned quickly, losing his balance as he did so and falling back, hard. Behind him was an adult from the village; the boy recognized him as one named Azrael.
Azrael smiled, then held out a hand. The boy took it and lifted himself to his feet, his behind sore. The adult said, "I think the others will be most pleased at your progress. The Valley was just recently discovered once again, yet you have managed to find it on your first excursion. You have done very well, Yuri."
The boy called Yuri inhaled sharply, and grinned. Azrael had recognized him! Had recognized him as an adult! He stood straight and wiped rain from his face. "Thank you, Azrael."
Azrael nodded then motioned with his hand in the opposite direction. "I have food in a pack below. Let’s eat and get back. Two days is a fair amount of time to be gone." He turned to begin his way down the rocky precipice.
"Wait," said Yuri. "I’m going to bring back the fruit." He pointed toward the orchard in the Valley.
The corners of Azrael’s mouth lifted. He nodded. "As you wish. I’ll be down below, then." He began heading down. Then he stopped. "Don’t forget how to find the Valley again…you may need to bring others to it." He dropped below the rocks where the river cut through the Valley.
Yuri wiped rain from his face once again. Grinning broadly, he made his way down to the orchard and began picking fruit.