He pushed aside another of the strange thorny vines, using the stout stick he had so providently carved two weeks or so before. It was hot here; not the dry heat of home, but a wet stifling heat full of spices and life that soaked into the lungs like a stew. Along the almost-path were more of the trees with the plump red fruit that it was best not to touch, much less to eat. He thought of the dry, rubbery citrus of the lone stunted tree in the parched earth of the yard behind his kitchen, and his stomach churned with hunger.
His memories all centred on that house. All his forty years he had lived there, amongst the heat, the dust and the chickens. All his forty years he had staggered through his life, drinking a little too much, eating not quite enough, helping out family and friends and neighbours with this thing and that in exchange for favours: never quite taking a job, but never quite taking charity.
And he had had dreams. Not dreams of fame, not dreams of great deeds, not dreams of money or women or flight. For thirty years and more—for as long as he could remember—each time he closed his eyes in sleep, he saw a Book.
It was not an ordinary book that he dreamt, not like the few ageing leather bound volumes that stood on the shelf unopened since his father died. Nor was it even like the foreign made bible pressed between golden boards that the priest kept so proudly in his church. No, the book he dreamt had a cover like cold grey stone, and set with coloured jewels that caught the light and shone like nothing he had seen in waking life.
The ground beneath his feet, which had been tending more and more to the left, was suddenly soft. He could hear the sound of running water beyond the broad leaved bush that leapt to embrace him as his foot slipped in the mud. The walking stick proved again its worth as he recovered his balance and eased across the slope to the base of a sturdy young tree. Now he could see the stream dancing on the stones at the bottom of the gulley, the same stream, it seemed, that he had lost two days ago when a rocky outcrop and a vast fallen tree had forced him miles off to the east. The sun cut down through a gap in the canopy and struck bright dancing lines from the water. He understood them, and they showed him a way down a sharp cascade of rocks to the water’s edge.
He gratefully refilled his canteen.
For a year now he had been following certain signs. At first they had been simple. A pattern in tea leaves that had led him to stroll past the cemetery one late autumn evening. The path of two dogs playing, or perhaps fighting, directed him to the store where the sharp, sturdy knives were sold. The set of a certain stone at the base of the dry fountain in the exact centre of the town square had sent him again and again on a seven mile walk in the blazing noon heat to the place where there was almost, but not quite, a cave in the side of the hill. Each time he followed a sign the impulse grew stronger and the signs themselves grew clearer, until now he found himself deep in the jungle of the interior, watching for meaningful ants or flowers that gave instructions by their colours.
Under a fallen tree his path took him, in water to his knees. Then he came to a place where leaves again hid the sky and the side of the wash had fallen in, making a pile of rocks three times his height which forced the stream to rush through a narrow gap to one side. This rocky tumble he mounted laboriously, testing each unsteady step with his free hand, then lifting himself inexpertly with two feet and one stick. From the top he could see the small lake that had formed upstream beneath the trees, the water held back by tangled wood and stone. His way led there.
Clambering down the rockfall his foot caught and twisted; he was forced to jump, and jump again, arriving at the bottom much sooner and more heavily than he intended. He stopped to breathe in the green tinted shadows, but the air seemed too thick to sustain him. Sweating uselessly, he dropped heavily to a rock by the stream and nursed his ankle.
Slowly his pulse steadied, his laboured breathing subsided. All around him there was … a sound. A leaf swirling by leapt out at him, urging him up, urging him on, commanding him out into the lake. He stood and splashed exhaustedly through the shallow water, pushing from beneath the lowered branches of the trees.
And there it was: not a book, but a waterfall, a towering wall of cold grey stone from which water flew and hung like coloured jewels suspended in the air.
What wonders was he here to read?