“Hello,” greeted a man, reaching toward me with a friendly smile. His copper beard stretched down into the water at his waist, threaded with a few gray strands hinting at the wear of age.
“Thanks,” I said, taking his hand and finding the bottom with my feet. The water only reached my shoulders once I stood. I wondered when I’d decided to have a swim.
Two women watched us from the bank. The younger one looked to be in her twenties, and was pretty, with dark hair and large round eyes. The other woman seemed grandmotherly, whatever age that would be. Pale eyes peered out from her face with an alert gaze that didn’t fit with the obvious years of her body. She lifted a large spotted smile at us.
The waterfall-fed pool was hemmed in on all sides by high fern-spotted faces of stone, as if we stood at the bottom of a giant’s footprint pressed into a thick old forest. I noticed a man with long white hair crawling halfway up the cliff face directly behind the women.
“My name is…” began the man whose hand I still held, but his friendly smile faded and fear crept into his eyes. “My name is…” he tried again, but with the same result. “Who are you?” he amended.
“I… don’t know,” I realized.
“What are you doing in the water?” asked one of the women on the bank. It was the younger one. She held herself elegantly, though her clothes were filthy and loose against her figure. The older woman was draped in scraps of grey-brown fabric tethered together to cover the essentials.
“Why are we in the water?” the man asked me.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “What’s he doing?”
All three of my companions gazed up at the climbing man, who’d also heard my question. As if in response, he started to make his way down.
“How did I get up here?” he called down to the women, who shrugged.
A swift shadow moved past and I glanced up at the treeline to see what had caused it. I saw only trees. The circle of sky above us was blue, unblemished by clouds or birds.
“Do we know each other?” asked a man. I was holding his hand, and we stood together in a pool at the bottom of a waterfall. He had a long beard. A couple of women watched us passively from the bank and an old man climbed down the rock face toward them.
“I don’t think so,” I frowned, releasing his hand and wading toward the women, who shuffled aside to give me room to sit.
“What is he doing?” the younger woman asked us and we followed her gaze to a man wrestling with a knot of roots about five feet off the ground, long ropes of white hair swaying behind him. The man stopped, hearing her question.
“I think I’m climbing up there,” he said, nodding toward the trees rimming the top of the hollow. He began to climb.
“Wo- wo- woah!” came a cry, and we all turned in time to see a teenage boy shoot over the edge of the waterfall and plunge into the pool before us.
“Hi,” said a man with a long beard as he reached toward a swimming boy.
“I wonder who they are,” muttered a woman seated beside me. She looked to be in her twenties.
An old woman crouched on the other side of the pool, watching. I followed her gaze to a man scaling up the steep stone wall behind me.
“What are you doing?” I asked the climbing man.
He eased down toward me so I went to meet him. “I have this,” he said, holding his arm out toward me. On it was written, ‘Climb.’ “I don’t know if it’s up or down,” he admitted.
“Maybe try both,” I suggested.
Movement distracted me. A teenage boy splashed in a pool beside us while a woman in her twenties watched. An old woman garbed in rags sat on a partially submerged stone. Her chin moved up and down absently.
“Both what, dear?” asked a man standing before me. He had long white hair and kind light eyes. I frowned.
I noticed the word, ‘Climb,’ scrawled on his arm. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing at it.
He gazed at the letters and then studied the cliff face. “Did I just climb down that?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted, “but to me the word ‘climb’ means up.”
I had the sudden desire to climb, too. As lovely as this place was, I wanted to be away from here. It was a need. A sense of claustrophobia nearly. An innate distrust. I reached a finger into the mud at my feet and traced the words, ‘climb up,’ onto my forearm. That way there wouldn’t be any question. A shadow flicked across my field of vision, though I couldn’t determine where, exactly.
“What are you doing?” asked a woman. She looked to be in her twenties and was standing next to a seated elderly woman. She was watching me with interest. Behind her, a pool frothed at the bottom of a waterfall.
“I don’t…” I glanced down at my arm, which had the words, ‘climb up,’ written on it. My other hand was covered in fresh mud. “I’m going to climb up there,” I declared, crossing to a section of the cliff face that had a promising amount of roots webbed across it. A man with long white hair climbed a section nearby. “Hello!” I called.
“What are you doing?” he called back, offering a friendly wave.
“I’m not sure,” I said. I was holding onto a small tree that had attempted to grow from a sheer cliff face. I was several feet off the ground. There was something written on my arm. “Climb up,” I read.
“Oh,” he said, studying the cliff above him. “Me too,” he smiled, holding up an arm with writing on it.
I was climbing and my muscles ached. Why was I climbing? I found a section of cliff face where several thick roots converged and rested in the small net they provided. I was sweating. I didn’t remember the decision to start climbing. I didn’t remember anything, which seemed odd. The ground was far below, and I saw an old woman sitting on the banks of a small pool. A man shouted as he drifted over the edge of the waterfall and plunged into the water below.
A man with long white hair was climbing down the cliff wall toward the swimmer. The swimming man called something up at me but I couldn’t make out his words. I waved, and noticed writing on my arm. Scrawled in what looked like mud were the words, ‘climb up.’ The top of the cliff was only another ten feet or so.
I kicked my leg up to leverage myself over the edge. Edge of what? Glancing backward nearly proved a terrible mistake. The ground was a few dozen feet below. I grasped the tree’s root and pulled with all my might. What was happening? I had no recollection of the climb, but my muscles hummed from exertion. Only after crawling a safe distance from the edge did I hazard another look.
Three people stood around the edge of a pool at the bottom of a pocket sunk into this old forest. A river terminated over the edge in a lovely waterfall. I could see a little girl up in the river, judiciously dog-paddling toward land, but I could tell she wouldn’t make it before the waterfall took her. A pang of worry tugged at me. It was an awfully long drop.
I stood and watched as she fought harder against the current, and as if in response the current dragged her faster to the edge, and then over. She plunged with a high scream and the two men standing at the edge of the pool dove toward her. I breathed easier watching them help her to the bank. She was fine. Already she was examining the arm of the older man as if they knew each other. I turned back to the forest and studied it for signs of a path.
Where had I been going again? I’d forgotten.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!