The Land Beyond the Slats
There have been tales of a mysterious being that haunts this land. The Celtic people, including my father, greatly connect it with their past and even their identity. It was my father's father's demise. And I hear it keeping my own father up late into the night, muttering to himself as he reads from his many books on the subject, and searches his scrolls for answers.
We have just two bedrooms in the house, and all of us girls use one, that acts as a reverse loft if you will, in the ground where it is cooler, with a ladder to bring us up to the main level of our humble abode. Even my mother has been sleeping down here with us lately, sharing a bed with me and my younger sister. I fear for their marriage as my father slips deeper and deeper into madness.
Finally, I had to know. Against my mother's wishes, I snuck upstairs late one night to talk to my father and ask the question I had been wanting the answer to since I could remember.
There he was, sitting at his desk, his fingers running madly through his salt and pepper wispy hair that stuck out a little further on the sides than the top. His greying bear was also quite a mess and his eyes were bleary, as if he hasn't slept for days.
I walked over to him in my nightgown and set a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Father, tell me the story about the spirits that haunt our land."
He looked up at me, startled at my sudden appearance but also looking right through me. He began to mutter just a little more clearly to me. "Long ago there was a plague upon this land. The people, my father, continued to see the glowing lights at night that floated above our crops and houses and wells, and in the morn the crops would be dead, the children I'll, and the wells dry. They chased the lights to a series of tunnels and locked them away forever. But the King wouldn't stand for it and demanded to know where such a power was kept. It would prove an insurmountable weapon against our enemies if we could learn to control it. He offered a reward for the power's capture, alive. After some of the droughts and I'll ess in our neighboring lands, there were rumors that this plague had once again been released and many who knew it's powers feared that it would return to our own lands. I must find it, before it kills us all."
He became belligerent, rifling through the many books and papers on his desk. Searching for something he hadn't found in my 18 years of living. From his desk, a map fluttered to the floor and in a quick glance as I was trying to calm him, I recognized a network of tunnels in the cliff edge about a half mile outside of town. I had been in these tunnels before, exploring with a couple town children some years ago. And many of these passages I knew well.
"Father, go to bed. Try again in the morning. You need to rest." I helped him ease out of his chair and led him to my parent's bedroom on the same level. It was empty and quiet without the snores of my mother, but my father didn't seem to notice. He laid there still muttering something, but drifting off to dream amidst wool blankets.
I snuck back down the ladder to our bedroom and grabbed a pair of pants, stockings, and my shoes, tucking my nightgown into the pants as best I could. Shimmying back up the ladder, the house well past the witching hour of night, I searched for and found one of my father's lanterns with a decent amount of wax still left in the candle, stuck another candle in my back pocket for good measure, and a box of matches. Then I picked up the map off of the floor and snatched my father's large heavy jacket off it's hook by the front door and was off, into the night, heading determinedly to end my father's madness once and for all by answering the question that had plagued him his whole life.
It didn't take me long to get to the tunnels. In the lantern light I even recognized the entrance to one of them that on the map my father had marked in red. I pulled the map out and further examined it. Surely enough, the red markings were isolated to only this one tunnel. What could he have meant? Only one way to find out.
I went into the tunnel marked on my father's map and quickly realized it went much deeper than the town children and I had ventured. The walls began to get narrower the further I walked until I was forced to hold the later directly in front of me and my elbows were forced closer to my body. The walls wound back and forth deeper and further into the cliff edge. For a brief moment I even had to duck my head down just to fit. But the strangest thing was at some point in I switch began to flip in the back of my mind and I began to regard these tunnels as hallways rather than the natural wonders they once were. The longer I walked, the more I began to realize that the walls around me we're lined with bricks rather than smooth stone. Then the tunnel widened into a large room, and I knew that something fishy was afoot.
In front of me, on the stone bricked floors, were many colorful luminescent lines of red and green and yellow and blue. Some of them were lit and some of them were not, with a few holes in the floor that some of the lines let to and lit. This was a puzzle, some red flags went off in the back of my mind. I showered the floor, looking for clues, walking down lines to see if it would change anything, stepping in the shallow, spherical holes, but nothing happened. For some reason, it felt to me that this puzzle had already been solved.
In the back of the room was an opening to a hallway again. I shrugged inwardly and began down that hallway. Not 10 feet down the way, another beautifully colored puzzle showed itself on the wall and after a little while of trying to figure it out the feeling that this puzzle had also been solved began to take over me as well. Once again I shrugged, a little frustrated that my efforts toward solving these puzzles had been for nothing.
Three more of these solved puzzles reared their heads before I finally came to a dead end: a boarded up section with large wooden planks and even metal beams pushed across. There was a glowing coming from behind this barricade that simultaneously sent shivers up my spine and out a calming warm effect in my chest.
I walked up toward the barricade. A yellow orb pops out between two planks of wood and buzzes toward me like a mosquito. By instinct I grab it, and it turns into a yellow rubber ball in my hand. I throw it back through the slats. If the story my father had told me held any bit of truth ...this orb could forebode terrible pain for the land.
Again an orb popped out from a different section of the slats. And again I grabbed it and it turned into a ball, this time a little blue rubber ball and again I threw it back. There was a giggling on the other side of the slats that caused the hairs all over my body to stand on end.
I mustered up the courage to peek through the slats at what lay behind and the sight took my very breath away. Behind the slats was a beautiful paradise. It was as if I was looking over a cliff, or on top of a mountain, overlooking a lush forest full of spearmint colored piney trees and a mountainous waterfall that cast forth a mist that overlaid the floor of the forest. It appeared to be a glorious afternoon, with a warm sunshine that didn't quite reach the slats.
What was most peculiar of all was the young face of a darker complexion than I had seen before standing to my direct left. It was a youthful boy holding a red ball and smiling impishly. He didn't say anything, but giggled once more and shoved the red ball between the slats toward me. On my side it turned into a red glowing orb that flew around like the others, before I snatched it and shoved it right back.
A feeling of dread and anger welled up inside me. This...this...this child was trying to infect our world with famine and illness and drought. I searched the room for loose planks and ended up finding a few boards on the floor. If it killed me, I was going to protect my land from this ill fate and keep what belongs on that side of the barricade on that side.
I had no hammer nor any nails, but I began jamming planks and boards between the openings. The giggling voice on the other side became less jovial and more insistent. While I was fixing the barricade he kept shoving more orbs through the slots and I had to keep catching them and shoving them back. To him, it may have been a game, but he never said.
"Stop that! You're going to hurt people! Just stay over there!" I hollered at him, a little more than peeved.
Suddenly, the ground began to tremble under my feet. The slots were full, and I turned tail and ran, winding my way back to the head of the tunnel, tripping more than a few times than I care to admit. The puzzles had erased themselves. A loud voice roared behind me, but I couldn't understand what it was saying.
I ran as fast as I could the whole way home, slamming the door to my home a little harder than I had intended, switching the latches to lock it as fast as my bleary mind could. Then I sat at my father's desk, still wrapped in his jacket and cradled my head in my hands, tangling my fingers in my hair, panting hard as I could.
I sat there, panicked for a few minutes, trying to force my heart rate to go back down. And then in the light of my lantern that was now sitting on the desk, I saw my father appear from his bedroom, almost ghostlike with wide eyes that reflected the firelight of the lantern.
"My dear, what are you still doing up?" He came up to me, noticing the jacket around my shoulders and helped me take it off. "Where have you been?"
While I was trying to organize my thoughts, I realized that he had addressed me directly, as he had not done in many years. I blinked rapidly at him, actually seeing my father as he used to be, lucid and aware of who he is and where he is.
"You haven't been visiting a boy have you?" He raised an eyebrow at me.
"No, no, no, Father, nothing like that. I just...couldn't sleep so I went for a walk." I said, reassuringly.
From down the hall I heard my mother call out quietly, "John?" And in she walked, in her white nightgown, identical to mine. "What are you two doing up? Go back to bed." I could tell she was exasperated with my father, as it was very much like him to stay up at this hour with his ramblings, but the look on her face changed when she realized it was me at the desk and he that was standing beside me.
"Don't worry dear. I just caught our little miss coming in from a midnight stroll and was about to send her right back off to bed." He said, in a comforting way. I beamed at him, recognizing my father from my early youth, and not the haunted shell of a man I had come to know.
Apparently my mom saw the same thing, because she didn't say a word, but just walked up to him and gave him a big warm hug. He seemed shocked, but not concerned.
"Why don't we all go back to bed?" I said, and began descending the ladder to the room my sister and I shared. I undressed back to my nightgown and laid in bed listening to the sound of my mother snoring from my parent's room. A sense of calm washed over me and I slept more peacefully than I had in years.