The iron flavor of blood filled the old man’s mouth. He peered down past the white hairs on his chin and eyed the iron bar protruding from his gut. It glowed with rust and went clean through his orange checkered shirt. A perfect fit. Wedged in so tight the blood didn’t even seep out.
He couldn’t feel it. Just a growing heat that started in his stomach and was spreading to his head, his toes, his crust-covered fingernails. The corners of his vision began to blur. The first tear fell, ripping a path through the layers of dirt embalmed on his cheek. It rolled into the corner of his mouth. He tasted it. Sweet salt. He let another tear fall, his tongue already waiting for the droplet’s arrival where his splitting lips met.
It all came back. The memories of partnerships and love he’d left behind, bottled up and filtered through a single teardrop. He cracked a smile. Crooked teeth exposed and yellowed by time and carelessness and betrayal. He smiled and tasted his tears and smelled the dirt and pine. This was it. This is where it had brought him. Squinting through his leaking eyes, he looked down at the gold in his open palm. It had turned to mud.
The old man fell to his knees.
His stomach growled. He hadn’t had anything to eat since the day before, when he had a can of sardines and bread. A staple of his.
The train tracks overhead showed rectangular patches of sky, now pink and orange with the setting sun. The leaves on the sycamore trees reflected the same colors. Henry felt a rumble. It wasn’t his stomach. A small earthquake rattled the wooden bridge. Then the sound of the whistle. Henry looked up.
The rectangles of the tracks disappeared under a rushing silhouette. An iron snake roaring above him. Metal on metal, screeching and shaking and leaving no space for any other sound. Henry’s stomach convulsed as the hurricane sound filled his ears.
Just when he thought it would never end, it did. The last boxcar rushed by and took with it the metallic screech. Henry exhaled. He hadn’t even noticed that he’d been holding his breath. Knowing hours would pass before the next train, he rolled over on his side and pulled the blanket up under his chin. It pricked at him and made his neck itch, but Henry just focused on his hunger. He’d deal with that later. For now, it was better to sleep.
The sun was lost by the time the next train rattled the bridge. But Henry wasn’t watching. He was perched up high in a sycamore, holding a retractable telescope to his eye. Glowing in the convex lens at the end were the flames of a campfire. Henry was watching the young couple around it. They’d been yawning more frequently, giving signs it was almost time for the tent.
The girl got up, stretched, and looked directly at where Henry was sitting. He didn’t flinch. The darkness was his veil. Oblivious to the watching eye, she walked off. The boy sat a few minutes longer, staring into the flames. He said something Henry couldn’t hear. The boy stood up and looked over his shoulder. Satisfied he was unobserved, he unzipped his pants and pissed onto the embers and burning wood. Smoke streamed up from where the flames had been. Henry dropped the telescope a moment so as not to be invasive. At the first sign of movement, he brought the relic to his eye again. The boy zipped up his pants, took one last, long look at the stars above, and made his way to the tent.
Amateurs. They’d left their cooler on the table unattended, unaware of what creatures might be waiting for an easy meal.
Henry watched the tent until the glow of the flashlight inside went dark. He waited some more.
Certain that the couple was now either asleep or too comfortable to be bothered by strange noises, Henry descended the tree. He walked under oaks and sycamores to the sound of crunching leaves and a chorus of crickets. He crossed the little stream that bordered the campsite and hopped up the embankment. A few scattered embers glowed in the fire pit. Henry squatted down next to the trunk of an oak for a final assessment before he went in for the kill. He honed his ears.
Silence from the tent. Looking ahead, he could see the cooler on top of the wooden table. There wasn’t much moon to speak of, but the cloudless sky provided enough light to make out shadows. The moment was now.
He stepped into the campsite, now fully exposed to sight. It was critical to act quickly. Henry walked methodically towards the outline of the cooler. His steps made no more sound than a light breeze scattering fallen leaves. He stopped.
Something else was there. Another rustling. Not his own. Frozen in position, Henry strained his eyes. Something climbed on top of the cooler. A round, bristling mass. Then another. Then a third. Shit.
Henry’s eyes widened as he watched their little hands work, searching for the secret to this food-filled chest. One sniffed around its edges as the other two felt around the top. The biggest one happened upon the zipper that held it shut.
With all the care of a human hand, the racoon slid the zipper along its preordained path. The other two helped. Within seconds and without a sound, they had it open and were crawling inside, reaping the bounty of this treasure. Out came a roll of french bread, a bag of sliced cheese, an opened bag of bacon, an entire package of precooked sausages. The raccoons passed these treasures off to each other, nibbling each to find what best suited their refined tastes. Trained professionals executing another perfect heist.
Horrified, Henry looked on. His instinct was to yell and scare them off, but he couldn’t risk waking the couple in the tent. He looked towards his feet. As if by fate, a perfectly round stone beckoned. He grabbed it and hurled it at the raccoons. It hit the biggest one square in the side. The raccoon looked down from the bread it was enjoying and smelled the rock. It continued with the meal.
Henry looked for another rock but found none. As the creatures feasted, his desperation grew. Another grumble from his stomach announced the severity of the situation. Preferring the risk of rabies to another night of hunger, Henry started towards them. The raccoons looked up.
As he got closer, they backed away. But they dragged the food with them. Henry jumped and flayed out his hands and fingers. He let out a hissing sound and bared his teeth. The two smaller raccoons scattered, taking what food they could with them. The biggest held its ground. Rows of little white fangs showed even in the dim light. It took a step towards Henry.
I’m going to have to kick this son of a bitch, Henry thought to himself. Still squatted down with his hand raised by his head in what seemed to him his most intimidating posture, he was blinded by a bright light. Then another.
The headlights of a truck appeared from behind the trees. It was the campground host, making her rounds of the sites. The big raccoon ran for the nearest oak. Frozen in his awkward stance, all Henry could do was wave. Stare and wave. The truck slowed down momentarily, as if the driver were debating what to do, then continued on its way. Henry was left in the darkness baring his teeth, pieces of food and torn packaging scattered around his feet.
Henry chewed cold chicken sausage as the gravel on the side of the highway crunched beneath his feet. Northward. That morning, he’d watched the day break, and with it, the flag raised on its pole. A red stripe and a bear. It hadn’t moved at first, but the wind caught hold and lifted it in a draped dance.
The breeze blew north. So Henry followed it.
As he swallowed the last bit of sausage, he turned to face the oncoming traffic. He raised an idle thumb. To his right, the sound of passing cars mixed with crashing waves. The whole ocean stretched out in a gleaming reflection of sun and sky. A giant, undulating mirror.
Car upon car passed. None stopped. He ambled backwards, facing his deniers. A swig of water to wash down another day’s cold breakfast. The highway wound through grassy hills alongside the train track. Cows watched him pass as they happily chewed their cold pastoral breakfast.
An old orange pick-up truck gave a few honks as it approached. It slowed down and pulled over on the side of the road past Henry. The paint was chipping, exposing patches of rust that blended in spectacularly with the rest of the car. Henry jogged up to it and peered in the open window.
“Where you headed, honey?” A wrinkled woman’s face smiled at him. Her glasses were thick as a pint glass and magnified her eyes to twice their size. Next to her sat a withering beagle. The red bags under its eyes drooped into another dimension.
“North,” replied Henry, squinting against the sun.
“Well, how far now?” The engine of the ancient machine putted.
“As far as you can take me.” Henry grinned.
The old lady chuckled.
“Alrighty, then. Charlie and I here are headed up as far as Monterey. Why don’t you hop on in?”
“That’s perfect. Thank you very much.”
Henry tossed his backpack in the bed between a few pieces of rusted rebar. He climbed in the passenger seat and closed the door.
“Oh, honey, you’re gonna have to close the door a little harder than that. This old thing doesn’t oblige a delicate hand.”
“Right, let me try again.” Henry opened a door to his full arms extension and pulled hard. It slammed into position.
“That’ll do. Don’t forget your seatbelt now. Off we go!”
Henry found no seatbelt.
The old woman rolled off the gravel and back onto the highway. The musty ocean smell washed in through the open windows. Her once yellow t-shirt was sunbleached and decorated with faded flowers. The sleeves flapped around her arms of sinewy muscles and loose skin. The beagle sat upright between her and Henry. It eyed him for a few minutes then shifted its gaze to the road ahead.
“Thanks again for picking me up. I really appreciate it.”
“Oh, it’s my pleasure really. Always nice to have some company on a long drive. Charlie here is a great companion but he’s not much of a talker.”
Charlie shook his head. His ears flopped around his face with the full force of gravity.
“So you’re going north, huh? Nowhere in particular?”
Henry noticed that she was sitting on top of a massive book that looked to be an encyclopedia. Even still, she just barely saw over the steering wheel.
“Not really. Just trying to get away from the city. Get into nature a bit.”
The old woman nodded her head.
“Always good to get away. You don’t look to have much in the way of equipment, though. Are you camping or staying in a hotel?”
“I’m planning to sleep in the woods. So...camping, I guess.”
She just nodded. Her owl eyes focused on the road ahead, hands perched on the steering wheel at 10 and 2.
“I’m Henry, by the way.”
She looked over at him and smiled. The tight white bun on her head didn’t flinch with the wind.
“It’s a pleasure, Henry. I’m Aurelie.”
They sat in silence. Henry watched the ocean glisten to their left and the green hills to his right. He saw a few more train bridges, the biggest of them marking the last sight of the ocean. The road guided their truck into a canyon and through a tunnel, spitting them out inland. Henry wished he could still smell the ocean air.
Charlie, the beagle, laid his head on Henry’s leg. He was no longer interested in the rolling hills and pastures. Henry scratched the top of Charlie’s head.
Passing a family of cows shaded under a valley oak, Aurelie broke the silence.
“You know, you ought to be careful sleeping in those northern forests. There’s tales of folks doing just that and never coming back.”
Henry had been on the verge of a nap.
“Oh, yeah?” He muttered, eyes closed.
“There’s a story about an old prospector my grandfather used to tell me. Bit of a legend around Monterey.”
Henry cracked one eye and looked at her.
“A prospector? As in, looking for gold?”
She nodded her head, her face twisted into a worried grin.
“That’s right, honey. This was back in the 1800s. Right at the peak of the gold rush. He was a Portuguese man, came over to strike it rich, like so many did. But he had more luck than most.”
Henry sat up.
“Oh, yeah? How’s that?”
“Well, he and his partner would disappear into the mountains for days and come back with pocket fulls of gold. Most struggled to find a decent nugget. The two fo them started their own business. A stamp mill. He became a powerful man in town. Got himself the most beautiful girl in the whole county as a wife. They had two children. Lacked nothing. Big house overlooking the bay. Horses and carriages and whatnot.
People didn’t know how he did it. No one else had much luck prospecting around there. Every few weeks he’d disappear into the mountains with a mule and provisions. He’d leave in the dead of night so he wouldn’t be followed. Started to get a reputation as a greedy man, unwilling to share his secret. But whenever he was asked, he’d say nothing.
One winter, things went south with his partner. He accused the Portuguese man of hoarding the gold he found. Said he wasn’t getting his fair share. The Portuguese man got angry at the accusations. He pulled all his investment out of the stamp mill. The business collapsed. His partner was left in ruin. That’s when the rumors started.
The partner started telling folks around town that the old Portuguese prospector used black magic to find the gold. That he had some sort of compass that would guide him to it. Made of iron or the like. According to the partner, the prospector would stake it in the ground and wait. Rust would form on the side that he was to go. That’s how he found the gold.
Nowadays, most folks would brush it off as a tall tale. But they were more superstitious back then. Some men in the town decided they’d confront the Portuguese man. They showed up at his front door, armed to the teeth and demanding to see the magical compass. In a fury, the prospector ran out of his house swinging a metal bar, splitting the mob in two. According to my grandfather, he screamed:
‘You fools! This tool doesn’t guide to gold. It guides to beauty! To the most beautiful damn thing that exists! For you bastards it would probably take you to a can of beans and a whore house. But for me, gold! For I adore the mineral, I see its inherent beauty! The rest of you see nothing but profit and gain. Go! Begone!’
Thinking the old man crazy, the townsfolk left. Rumor had it that his wife cried at the doorway while he proclaimed his love for gold. Made it clear she wasn’t the most beautiful thing in his eyes.
Whether or not that’s true, she left shortly after. Took the children with her and left the man alone in his big house. He isolated himself. Passerbys claimed they’d seen him in his yard, sitting and staring at a small post bored in the ground.
Anyway, one day he set out for the forest. In the middle of the day, wandered through the center of town mumbling to himself and carrying nothing but that iron instrument. No one bothered to follow. They just watched him vanish into the woods. That was the last they ever saw of him.
Search parties went up after a few days, but they had no luck. Even the bloodhounds turned up nothing. Some said he was now living in another town. Some claimed to have seen him in the forest. But most believed he was dead. His house rotted away under the sea air until they tore it down years later. And that was it. Gone forever.”
Henry stared at Auerelie. Charlie snored on his leg.
“Is that story true?”
“Well, it’s hard to say, honey. Like I said, my grandpa used to tell me it as a little girl. How much is real and how much is legend is a mystery to me. The truth, though, is that those woods are no easy place for a person to be. So I’d be mighty careful if I were you. That’s all I’m really trying to say.”
The hours passed and so did the landscape. Aurelie told Henry about her childhood. Henry avoided talking about his own. They stopped for gas and Aurelie bought Henry a candy bar and a soda. An hour later, they were in Monterey.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright, honey?”
Henry pulled his backpack out of the bed and shut the passenger door hard, leaning in the window.
“I’ll be fine, Aurelie. Don’t worry about me. Thanks again for the ride. You’re a life-saver.”
She gave him a smile and a wave. The old beagle looked up with its drooping face.
“Well, alright then. Take care, now!”
Henry gave the side of the truck two pats and stepped back. Its orange body disappeared around a wood-shingled corner shop two blocks up the street. Henry looked at the sign hanging from its side.
Seafarer’s Antiques & Oddities
Henry searched his pockets. He only had a few dollars. His eyes floated up to the sign again. His feet took him forward.
A bell jingled as he opened the door and stepped in. It was a tight space. Light filtered in through the myriad objects filling the window.
“Good afternoon.” The bearded and overweight shop keeper was seated behind the register, reading an almanac from 1853.
“Hi,” Henry said. He stood in place, looking around at the treasures that surrounded him.
“Looking for anything in particular?”
Henry ambled through the shop. He ran his fingers over an anchor, withered maps, a primitive globe in shades of beige. It smelled of dust and mildew and decay.
“No. Just looking.”
There was a pick-axe mounted on the wall. Henry thought of Aurelie.
“Actually, do you have any old prospecting equipment?”
The man behind the register either coughed or laughed.
“Sure, all sorts, except the gold.”
He got up from his chair and walked from behind the counter. The wooden floorboards groaned under his weight.
He led Henry into a little side room. It was full of pans, sifts, shovels. Random tools Henry didn’t know the name of hung from all sides.
“Most everything in here dates back to the 19th century.”
“This is like a museum. How did you get all this stuff?”
The shopkeeper made another gruff sound.
“Passed down through the family, mostly. Generations of hoarders. Grandpa finally wised up and decided to try and sell it. Here I am.”
They stood in silence. Henry’s eyes roamed. The shopkeeper stared down at the tip of his nose.
“Well,” he blurted out. “Let me know if you need anything else.”
He walked back to the counter and left Henry alone to sift through the relics.
After searching through every corner of the room, Henry didn’t find what he was looking for. He thanked the shopkeeper and made his way out.
He stepped outside and the door closed behind him. The breeze brought with it the smell of salt and diesel. He stood still on the sidewalk, deciding what to do next.
A creaking sound above caught his attention. He looked up. It was the sign for the shop. A large wooden board, chipping with paint. The breeze had it swaying. Its hinges creaked against the metal bar that held it in place. Henry focused his eyes.
The bar was a little longer than his forearm and made from polished stainless steel. Henry saw himself and the whole street replicated in its oblong reflection. He leaned over to see the other side. The reflection twisted and flowed like a stream of mercury. It ended in a rough orange crust.
Henry stared. That wasn’t right. Why would only one side of the bar oxidize? It was too precise. And more importantly, stainless steel wasn’t supposed to rust. Henry ran back into the shop.
“Yes?” The shopkeeper looked up. The bell overhead rang with excitement.
“The sign. I mean, the sign post. The metal bar the sign is hanging from. Is that for sale?” Henry couldn’t keep the urgency out of his voice.
The shopkeeper looked at Henry in silence. The bell lost any trace of enthusiasm.
“No,” he muttered. “It’s not.” He looked back down at the book.
Henry reached into his backpack. He pushed aside the blanket and extra socks. It was all the way at the bottom. Henry pulled it out.
He laid the retractable telescope on the counter. The soft gold surface gave off almost no reflection. Just small streams of light that bounced off with little ambition.
“How ‘bout for this? Would you trade the bar for this? It still works. And it’s old. Really old. Probably belonged to Columbus or something.”
The shopkeeper didn’t hear Henry’s babble. He stood up from his chair and examined the telescope in his hands. He ran his finger along it. Picked at it with a dirty thumbnail. Retracted it and collapsed it delicately. Looked through the eyepiece and backwards through the lens. He grabbed a small magnifying glass that hung around his neck and inspected it from end to end.
When he was through, he set the antique back down on the counter. He kept looking at it, his hands resting on the wooden desk on either side. He looked up at Henry.
“Son. This is a fine piece. Spectacular, really. But it wouldn’t be right for me to take it from you for some worthless scrap metal. And besides, what am I supposed to hang the sign from?”
Henry went rapid fire into possible solutions. Any old post would do. He was happy to do the trade. He continued until the shopkeeper started shaking his head.
“Well, alright then. I’d be a fool to pass up on an offer like this, and you’re a fool to make it, but if you’re so certain...it’s a deal.”
“Heck yes!” He exclaimed. “Thank you!”
They spent the better part of an hour extracting the metal bar from the storefront wall. The shopkeeper brought out a ladder and told Henry what tools to hand him as he worked. When they finished, the shopkeeper offered him lunch. Whitebread, sardines, mayonnaise, and hot sauce. Henry scarfed it down with the help of a cold beer. He thanked the shopkeeper and headed out with his new treasure. The shopkeeper stood on the sidewalk in front of his shop and looked through the telescope. He had it focused on the mountains to the south.
He was still looking intently through it as Henry walked off towards the beach.
The sky transcended into pinks and oranges as Henry walked along the coast. He made his way south along a dirt path that traced the edges of little beaches and coves. Cormorants stood watch on the multitude of rocks sprouting from the water.
Henry found a sheltered patch of sand. He would be out of view of anyone passing by. He pulled out his blanket and draped it over his shoulders. Then he pulled the metal post out of his backpack and held it in his hands. It was cool to the touch.
Setting it down, Henry noticed that his hand was orange. He assumed it was the strained light of the setting sun. He looked closer. A sort of dust covered his palm. He grabbed the metal post. The rust had disappeared where he’d been holding it. Instead, there were now fingerprints of polished steel.
He ran a finger over the rust that remained. It came off like dust from a wine glass. Henry used his shirt to wipe down the post from end to end. None of the rust remained. Only a shining piece of metal, no longer orange with oxidation, but orange with the reflection of the sea and sky. A flock of pelicans flew by in the confines of the tubular mirror. Henry looked up to watch them pass.
He thought back to Aurelie and her story about the Portuguese prospector. Henry lifted the post above his head and brought it down hard into the sand. It sank in to a third of its length. Then Henry sat and watched.
The stars were in full force by the time he fell asleep.
Henry awoke to a seagull pecking at his backpack. He threw a fistfull of sand at it and rolled over onto his back. The light was dim. Viscous fog clung to the land. Henry propped himself up on his elbows and watched the tide inch closer. There was a silence in the fog. The sounds of waves crashing and gulls screeching took on a muted tone.
The post was at his feet, penetrating the sand in the same upright position he’d left it. His reflection was as muted as the noises around him. Except for a dark streak on the side. Henry squinted at it, then opened his eyes wide. He scrambled onto all fours and brought his face within an inch of the post. The dark streak wasn’t a reflection.
It was rust.
No freaking way, Henry thought. He crawled through the sand around the post. The rust only existed in a thin, straight line on one side. The rest shined silver. This was it. His intuition had been right. Henry got down closer to the oxidized line. It was perfectly straight, running from the top of the post down into the sand. Hairs pricked up on the back of his neck. He turned around to face the direction it pointed. The fog cleared for a brief moment and provided a patch of clarity, enough for Henry to make out the outlines of trunks and branches.
It was pointing towards the forest.
Henry grabbed the post, wiping off the sand and rust. He wrapped it in his blanket and stuffed it into the backpack. Brushing bits of seaweed from his clothes, he walked off towards the town. He’d need some food where he was headed.
The first three markets had refused his offer. At the fourth, the owner accepted. Henry helped him unpack and stock inventory the entire day. In return, he walked away with 12 cans of sardines, 2 cans of chili, a loaf of bread, and a small bag of chocolates.
Henry ambled towards the coastal path again and continued his walk south. He savored the chocolates as he went, letting each one dissolve in his saliva without ever chewing. If there was one thing Henry did well, it was making any morsel of food last as long as possible.
The sun set and he kept walking. The stars shimmered above and still he kept walking. He passed by abandoned houses, empty golf courses, eerie coves. He walked. He made it to Carmel-by-the-sea and kept on. Henry was now far from almost any houses. The highway he followed was quiet. Still, he walked.
Daybreak found him above an isolated beach that was impossible to access. He turned and faced the woods on the other side of the road. The elongated trunks of the redwoods stretched into the fog. Only the waves behind made any sound. Henry took a deep breath and started up the hill into the trees. He left no footprints on the blanket of pine needles beneath.
Henry didn’t know it, but he’d been in the forest for six days. He was far from the sounds of the ocean. Now and then he’d come to a cliff that permitted a view of that liquid expanse.
Each night, he drove the metal post into the ground and slept on a bed of pine needles. Each morning, he continued in the direction the rusted line pointed. The line had started becoming thicker in width. Henry assumed this meant he was closer to his destination. He’d gone through more than half of his food. The springs and streams he’d come across had staved off thirst.
But Henry didn’t focus on his hunger. He was intent on finding whatever it was the metal post was leading him to. According to Aurelie’s story, it would be the most beautiful thing he could imagine.
He decided to rest his feet and sit at the base of a towering tree. A patch of sunlight shined through the needles above. He soaked in its warmth. Wind whistled through the pines. Eyes closed, head resting against the textured bark, Henry daydreamed about the story that had led him here.
What a time to be alive. Where the work a person did was material, inherently valuable. Not a digital abstraction that begged the question of its significance. When idle time was a part of life and not something to be fought off with devices and distractions. He felt he would have been happier then. Everything about the present made him sick. The pace. The selfish morality. The absolute lack of value in stillness. Henry hoped his little treasure would guide him to a wormhole. One that went back to an earlier time. He was tired of now.
The breeze blew stronger. It began to roar through the trees, compelling Henry to open his eyes and sit up. He heard a sound that sent his stomach sinking. A strain and creak. Like cracking a board in half.
On instinct, Henry stood and grabbed his backpack. He looked around, trying to find the source of the sound. It was coming from above but on all sides. Henry backed away slowly from the tree. It felt like the whole mountain was swaying in the wind. He slipped the backpack over his shoulders and stood still.
The first branch fell. Henry started running.
The forest was collapsing around him, the trees shedding their unwanted limbs. A branch as thick as his body fell to his right. The impact shook the ground with such a reverberation that Henry almost fell as he ran. He shifted his gaze up and down, watching for branches falling from above while being sure to not trip on those already strewn about. He heard a crack like thunder and skidded to a stop as what seemed to be a tree itself toppled down an arms-length ahead. Regaining balance, he cut to the left at full sprint, unable to hear anything but splitting timber and the roaring wind. Henry started to feel hot. His back was burning under the backpack. He kept running but the heat became unbearable. He stopped, risking being crushed under the weight of an ancient log. He ripped off his bag and hurled it to the ground. The heat on his back was immediately gone. Twigs and pine needles whirled about. It didn’t make sense. Squinting against the flying debris, Henry knelt down and opened the bag. The metal rod was glowing orange. A cylindrical ember burning through the canvas. In desperation, Henry grabbed the rod, screaming as he did, the skin on his palm melting onto the polished steel. He hurled it as deep into the forest as he could. It rotated through the air, immune to the violent wind. Henry watched the glowing pillar disappear behind a rock ahead.
The wind stopped. Henry knelt on one knee, panting. His ears were ringing. But he noticed a sound. A quiet hiss. It penetrated the quiet of the forest, now strewn with shattered wood. From behind the rock ahead, what appeared to be steam floated up and disintegrated into still air.
Henry stood and looked at his hand. Raw flesh glistened pink where he had grabbed the post. He walked over towards the rock, clambering up it with the help of his good hand. Once on top, he looked down.
Henry saw himself.
And tree tops. And sky. But it was all receding beneath him. It gave him vertigo. As if he’d stumbled upon a hole in the ground that fell into another world.
It was a pool of water. So still that its reflection was impenetrable. There was no sign of the metal post. No ripple perturbed the pool’s surface.
Henry jumped down from the rock and knelt by the side of the water. He tried to stare into it, to see what was underneath, but all he could see was himself. He looked more closely at his replicated countenance. Even after weeks without a razor, the scruff on his face was still just that. Patchy bits of hair that didn’t connect and sprouted haphazardly from his chin. He had imagined himself looking like John Muir. That wasn’t the case.
Henry thought that his skin would have been leathery and creased by now. He’d exposed it to nothing but sun and cold. Instead he saw a smooth forehead. Glowing cheeks. Hardly the hint of crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. In Henry’s mind, he was already an old man. A creature of old habits and experience. What he saw in the pool looked like a boy. Unkempt and destitute, but a boy no less.
He reached into the water with his wounded hand. It enveloped the skin like a cool balm, rich in texture. Liquid velvet. Henry brought his face down to its surface. The reflection was relentless. He stared into his own eyes. Closer. The tip of his nose dipped in. Closer. The pool wrapped around his lips and climbed his chin. Closer. His entire head sank in. From above, it looked like two bodies connected by a single neck.
Opening his eyes, Henry saw algae and rocks quivering with refracted light. The pool was deep. Something glistened at the bottom. Was it the metal post? Maybe, but the color seemed off. Golden.
Henry pulled his head out from the pool and watched the ripples expand and lap against the water’s edge. He stripped off his clothes and jumped in. Swimming in place, Henry looked towards the tops of the redwoods that framed a blue sky. He took a deep breath and dove into the depths.
The golden shimmer was still there. Henry swam to the bottom of the pool, feeling the pressure compressing his head. Little bubbles escaped from his nostrils and floated away. He grabbed a rock at the bottom with his good hand and held himself in place. The shimmering object was round and flat, with a button centered on its edge. Henry picked it up between his fingers and pushed the button. A spring pushed the front open and exposed the face of a watch. Small and brass. Henry passed the relic to his good hand and enclosed it in a tight fist. He swam to the surface and hoisted himself out of the pool to sit at it’s edge. His legs stayed submerged to his shins. Scooting himself back without the help of either hand, Henry prepared to inspect his newfound treasure. He brought up his fist and turned it over. His fingers unravelled from his palm like a wave. Thumb. Pointer. Middle. Ring. Pinky. Henry stared at his open palm, drops of water dotting his skin.
He held nothing but mud.
“Grandpa! Tell us the story about the man and the stick!”
“Yeah! Tell it to us!”
“Again? You’ve heard that story probably a hundred times”
“Tell it again, please!”
“Well, alright. Come sit on the rug then.”
The little girl and her brother nestled down at their grandpa’s feet. They looked up at him, their eyes fixed on his wrinkled face and long white beard. He sank into his armchair and held his hands together in front of him. The light from the fire cast sporadic shadows across the living room.
“It happened a long, long time ago. In a town surrounded by forest and ocean. It was a very different time…”
He took his time with the tale. His grandchildren knew every word of it, but the story never ceased to surprise them. An entire log had been reduced to embers by the time the old man finished.
The little girl’s eyes filled with wonder and longing. She looked at her brother then back to her grandfather.
“Man,” she squeaked. “If I were born then, I would have found a bunch of gold and had a big house right on the beach. It would’ve been the best!”
The old man smiled and shook his head, looking down at the scar on his palm.
“You know, Aurelie. That’s where you’re wrong. Right now is exactly where you want to be.”
His eyes glistened with the orange light.
“This is it.”