Fritz and the Mystery of the Waters, Part 2

Early one Sunday morning, Fritz put his boat into the rushing water and let it carry him away.

He told no one where he was going. He didn’t want to worry them. Instead, he wrapped up food, an empty bottle for water, and some dry clothes in a big bundle, tied it all to his back, and set off alone. He knew nothing about sailing a boat, of course, so he had no way to steer, no way to stop, no way to control his own fate. He just stepped into the boat, tipped it off the edge into the flood and held on tight.

It was exhilarating. Wind whipped past his face as the water sped him along. The boat rocked back and forth but stayed afloat, and gradually Fritz loosened his tight grip on its sides. The moon and stars gave just enough light for him to see that he was all alone, a tiny, bobbing speck on a vast gurgling sea of water. A feeling of such loneliness overcame him that he almost regretted his decision. It was too late now, and anyway, the feeling of complete freedom that came from speeding along in the darkness soon overcame his fear.

The sun came up, and Fritz sailed on. Now he could see the distant mountains on either side of the great plain filled with water. Behind, the mountains were just a smudge, too far away to see. The village of Burgh was out of sight. Ahead, water stretched on to the horizon. Fritz sailed on all day. He ate some food. He slept a bit. He filled his bottles with water, reaching very carefully over the side of the boat. The sun went down. The boat moved on. Fritz sailed through the darkness again.

With no stilted houses to measure the height of the water, Fritz didn’t even notice when the level began to drop. He did eventually sense that the boat was going a bit slower than before. Then he felt a tiny bump. Then a scrape. Then the boat jerked to a halt, throwing him forward a bit. The bottom had hit mud and stuck tight. A foot of water still flowed around Fritz’s feet as he got out to investigate. Then just a few inches. Then just a trickle. Then nothing. It was hard to see much by moonlight, but as far as Fritz could tell, mud was on every side. Nothing but mud, exactly like at home. A flash of intense disappointment struck him. He sat down in his boat to wait for daylight and the long walk home. Emptiness eventually buried him in sleep.

As often happens, daylight brought many changes. The first thing Fritz saw when he woke up was that the mud did not continue in every direction. To the left, yes. To the right, yes. Behind him, mud as far as he could see. But ahead was something strange. Ahead some stones seemed to be sticking up out of the ground. It seemed like only a few minutes walk away. Fritz went eagerly to investigate.

What he found was the most incredible thing he had ever seen. After walking about twenty minutes, he reached the series of rocks. They were about as tall as he was and spaced out through the mud, each several feet away from the others. They were perfectly rectangular, looking like they had been cut out by some giant hand. This was not the incredible part, though. What truly amazed Fritz was what was on the other side of the rocks. Just where the rocks stood, the mud came to an abrupt end. In fact, the whole ground came to an abrupt end. It just fell away below him. Fritz stood, one hand on a huge stone block and looked down and down and down to the bottom so far away that it made him dizzy.

This answered the question of where the water went. Fritz could see it down at the bottom of this immense cliff. The sun was sparkling off its surface. Water stretched out as far as Fritz could see, bigger than a sea, bigger than anything Fritz had ever seen. He had a sudden thought that if his boat had gone any faster, he could have passed right between these stone blocks and poured with all that water over the edge of this terrible drop, falling and falling into that vast stretching water below. Fritz didn’t need to know about distances and height and impact to understand that he would have died from such a fall. He backed up a few steps. What he felt was fear, but also triumph. His journey hadn’t been a waste. He had found the answer to at least one question. Now, what to do next? Would he have to walk all the way home? Could he even do that in a week before the waters washed him away again? Did he have any other choice?

Fritz was pondering these new questions when a a strange sound reached him. A shrieking sound. And was it coming from the sky?

Fritz looked up. A huge animal with flying through the air overhead! Fritz had never seen a bird. There were no birds in Burgh because there was no place for them to live and eat. You can imagine, then, how terrifying this giant flying thing seemed to him. It swooped past again and again, crying out in its loud voice. After a moment, Fritz made the horrifying discovery that it had two heads! Then one of the heads dipped down for a moment and yelled, “You there!”

Fritz’s heart stopped. The animal could talk? It swooped by again. “You there!” This time Fritz saw that it wasn’t one animal with two heads. It was an animal with a person on its back. Instantly Fritz’s fear was matched by longing. What would it be like to climb on such a creature and fly through the sky? It would be even better than rushing along in a boat!

No sooner had he thought this than the creature darted toward him and in one motion wrapped its talons around his middle and lifted him into the air. Up, up, Fritz went into the air, leaving his stomach behind on the ground. He was sure he was going to be sick. And yet. And yet, it was wonderful. Horrible and sickening and wonderful.

He opened his eyes, which had squeezed shut at first out of sheer instinct, and saw the world stretch out beneath him. He closed them again and tried to steady his insides. Before he could open the up again, his feet bumped into something solid and he was set down. A moment later, a rustling thump sounded next to him, and he looked up again.

The creature had set him down on top of one of the rectangular rocks, and now it had landed next to him. A girl just about his age was sliding off it’s back, holding a short rope in one gloved hand.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?,” she asked.


Fritz and the Mystery of the Waters

Once upon a time there was a little village all built on stilts. The general store, the school house, the tiny café, and the post office all sat in the middle, perched high in the air like a cluster of long-legged ostriches gossiping on the plains. Out to each side, a little row of houses stretched, connected in one long line by sturdy wooden bridges suspended twenty feet in the air.

If you happened by the village (Burgh, it was called) on a Tuesday or a Friday, you would be astonished by the apparent whimsy of its lofty location. Situated on an open plain, with nothing but dry, cracked mud underneath and blazing hot sun overhead, it seems an odd choice of construction.

If you arrived on a Sunday, however, you would understand because if you arrived on a Sunday, you would be arriving by boat. Every single Sunday at 1 a.m., the water came to Burgh. Not a gentle rain that slowly filled up the muddy plain. Not a gradually rising flow, like some river that overflowed its banks. The water came in one big rush from the north, slamming into the wooden stilts of Burgh’s houses with enough force to make the buildings tremble a bit, then hurrying past with undiminished power.

Each Sunday morning the citizens of Burgh looked out their windows at water as far as the eye could see. That is why Sunday was washing day. When everyone went to bed on Sunday night, the water would still be rushing along, but at precisely 11 p.m. each Sunday night, the flow stopped. By midnight the water was all gone.

Each Monday morning, the citizens of Burgh looked out their windows at mud as far as the eye could see. That was why Monday was collection day. Rope ladders were let down from the General store, and everyone who was tall enough and strong enough to slog through the mud climbed down and searched for valuable items that had washed into the vicinity. The children always eagerly awaited the day they were big enough to join the Collection. Everything from beautiful stones to rubber tires to old toasters could be found stuck in the Monday mud, and it was great fun to slip and slide along looking and even more fun to pry things up. They made the most satisfying sucking sound as the mud slowly let them go. By sundown Monday, the mud had always been completely dried by the baking sun. The hard earth would not part with any more treasures. The citizens of Burgh went home and washed up in water from the Sunday barrels.

This weekly cycle may seem strange to us, but to the citizens of Burgh it was as normal as your mother shaking you awake for school each morning. True, the rushing water could be a bit dangerous, but no one ever went down to the plains on any day except Monday, unless they were repairing the stilts, and it was very rare for anyone to be lost. In exchange for this slight risk, the flooding brought them fresh water for the barrels, nets full of fish to eat all week, and of course, the treasures in the mud.

So life went on in this regular fashion, and the people of Burgh lived unquestioningly on fish and what small vegetables they grew in the giant pots on their back porches, until Fritz came along. Fritz was like any other child of Burgh. He grew up running along the wooden bridges of the town, learning letters and numbers at the small school, drinking fish oil when his mother thought he was sick, carrying water from the Sunday barrels to his father’s garden pots, and dreaming of the day he could join the Collection. Only one thing made Fritz different. Curiosity. Fritz, unlike the rest of the citizens of Burgh, wanted to know why. Also where. And how. And if.

Why did the water come? And why only once a week?

Where did it come from? And where did it go to?

How did it come so quickly? And how did it disappear so quickly?

If we are here, are there people other places, too? And if the water always comes on time, is someone out there controlling it?

Fritz tried asking grownups these questions, but they always shushed him quickly.

“The water is there. That’s all you need to know,” said his mother.

“Don’t waste time on such talk. There’s work to be done,” said his father.

“The water is a fact of life, like the sun, and the mud,” said his teacher. “It’s not our job to understand them, just to use them as best we can.”

These non-answers were extremely non-satisfying to Fritz. And who could blame him?

As Fritz grew bigger, his questions grew, too. Eventually, he joined the Collection and began to find fascinating things. Screwdrivers, bits of broken glass, branches off of trees that he had never seen before, an odd rectangular box full of gears and other bits of metal. He studied these things. He drew pictures of them. He took them apart when he could. And mostly he wondered.

Then one Monday, Fritz found a very small item in the mud. It was a little toy, shaped like a cup, but stretched out a bit and with pointy ends. At first, Fritz had no idea what it was for. It was too small to be a hat. It couldn’t sit flat, so it didn’t make a very good cup. It was quite by accident that he finally solved the mystery. Fritz had been carrying the little toy around in his pocket, and one day when he went to fetch water from the Sunday barrels for his mother, the odd thing fell out of his pocket and right into the huge barrel. Fritz stared, fascinated. It floated. Fritz eagerly retrieved the Floater and took it home. (It’s real name, of course, was BOAT, but Fritz had never heard that word.)

Fritz loved to play with his new Floater. Whenever he was alone, he would find buckets or bowls and set the toy on the surface of the water. He learned that if he put small items in it, they too could float around. Slowly, an idea grew in his mind. If he could build a Floater that was big enough…could he float on the waters himself some Sunday?

Fritz started collecting wood that he found each Monday. He contributed his portion to the town, of course, but what he got to take home, he stored under his bed, waiting until there would be enough.

Finally, when the wood pile in his room made it nearly impossible to get in and out the door, Fritz began to build a boat.


The Song

Once upon a time there was a young pig herder who lived on his father’s farm among the trees of the Wild Forest.  Every day he had to lead the pigs out into the trees to forage for food and had to carefully stand guard with his bow and arrow to keep wolves and bears from coming and carrying them off.  He was a steady, sensible sort of boy.  He always did his job and did it faithfully and never dreamed of leaving his charge.

Then the song came.

One night, just as he was shutting the pigs up in the their pen, a whisper of a melody came snaking out of the trees.  It was so beautiful it brought tears to his eyes.  It was so irresistible that it made his feet tingle.  He knew that no matter what, the most important thing in the world was to follow that song and find out who was singing it.  Without looking back once, he slung his bow over his shoulder and set off among  the trees to follow the song.

He walked all night with only the song for company, and it was the best company he’d ever had.  The longer he listened, the sweeter the song grew, until he began to feel that his heart would burst just from listening.  He barely even noticed when the trees came to an end, and he began walking among field after field of grain.  It wasn’t until the sun came up that he noticed he was approaching a strange village.  He was farther from home than he had ever been in his life.  Normally, he might have felt scared, but with that lovely song in his ears, all he felt was wonder.  The song led him right to the main square of the village, and then it disappeared.

Suddenly the boy felt very, very lost.  He stood, looking around at that strange place and blinking and realizing how tired he was from walking all night.  It was still very early in the morning, and no one in the village was awake yet.  Without the song, it was very, very quiet.  Then he heard a small sound.

It wasn’t the song.  It was the sound of someone crying.  The boy didn’t know what else to do, so he went to see who it was.  In a little ditch that ran between two houses, he found a small girl.  She was holding a tiny ball and crying so hard that she almost wasn’t breathing.

“What’s wrong?” asked the boy as gently as he could.

The little girl was so miserable she didn’t even look afraid of a stranger talking to her.  “I…can’t…find…my…puppy,” she said.  “M-m-my father gave h-h-him to me, and n-n-now he is gone.  I…thing…th-th-the bears got him.  And oh, my f-f-father is going to be so mad.”  The last word got lost in another long wail.

“Shhhh, don’t cry,” said the boy.  “Maybe I can find your puppy.  Where did you last see him?”

The little girl looked up hopefully, and her wails calmed into hiccups.  “He was sleeping with me in my bed last night.  I felt him get up and leave just a while ago.  When I woke up and came to find him, he was gone.”

The boy had the girl show him where her door was, and he looked around for paw prints.  After a bit he found some, and some larger prints, too.  It looked like a bear had been near the houses. He showed the little girl the puppy prints.

“I have to go follow these and see if I can find him,” he said.  “I am only a pig herder and not good at many things, but finding lost animals is something I know how to do.  You stay here and wash away those tears before your mother find you like this.”  He didn’t say anything about the bear tracks because he didn’t want to worry her.

Unslinging his bow, he followed the bear tracks back the way he himself had come, back towards the trees of the forest.  He knew that many times bears will carry their food off to their dens before killing it.  He hoped that was what had happened with the puppy.  The boy had never been to this side of the forest before, but the trees still felt familiar, and it did not take long for him to find the bear’s den.  He saw the dark shape of the bear swaying toward the opening with something in its mouth.  The boy stopped and carefully took aim with his bow.  It was important to get a good shot the first time with a bear.  When he let the arrow fly, it went straight into the back of the bear’s neck.  The bear dropped what was in its mouth and whirled toward the boy, who was already fitting another arrow into the bow.  That one went straight into the bear’s heart.  With a great crash, the bear dropped over.  Cautiously, the boy approached the bear.  It didn’t move.  It was dead.  Just on the other side of the bear, a small pile of fur was trembling.  It was the puppy.  He was alive, though there were several cuts along his little body.  The boy gently picked up the pup and carried him back home.

By the time he arrived at the village, everyone was awake and about their daily work.  The little girl was overjoyed to see her puppy home safe, and her parents were happy, too.  The mother was happy to see her daughter happy, and she offered the boy a huge plate of breakfast.  The father was happy that he had killed the dangerous bear that threatened the village, and he offered the boy a job in his carpenter shop and a bed in the barn.

“I really can’t stay, ” said the boy, thinking first of the song and then, almost ashamedly, of his father and the pigs.  “I must go home.”

“If you wait until tomorrow, there will be a merchant’s wagon to give you a ride,” said the father.  “They are expected this morning and never stay more than one night.  It would be better than walking all day after walking all night.”

The boy thought about it.  He didn’t even know exactly how far he was from home.  The wagon sounded like a good idea.  One day more would not make much difference now.  So he stayed the day.  And the father took him to the shop and showed him how to use the saw and plane and make fine angles and build sturdy things.  There was too much to learn in just one day, but he loved watching as the expert carpenter crafted a table and then a chair and other things that would be beautiful and useful.  It made him realize how little he knew as a pig herder.

That afternoon the merchant arrived, and the next day he was ready to head on into the forest on his usual route.  But the boy did not go with him because the boy was no longer there.

You see, just as the sun had been setting and the family began to wash for supper, the boy heard the melody snaking out from the fields and filling him up and setting his feet to the road.

And the song whispered him on.

To Be Continued

Better Off, Part 2

If you missed the first part, it’s here.

For two days Sammy lay burning with fever.  Once or twice he woke up and thought, “I need a doctor.”  But he was too sick to get out of bed, even to make a hot cup of tea.

On the night of the second day, Francesca was walking by Wallow Cove, when she met Reggie coming out of his burrow towards her.  He was frowning with worry.

“Francesca, have you seen Sammy lately?” he asked.

“No,” said she, “but that’s not unusual.”

“I know,” replied Reggie, “but there is no smoke coming up from his chimney.  And there hasn’t been since the day of the ice skating.  I’m afraid something’s wrong.”

Together they hurried down to Sammy’s door and rang the bell.  There was no reply.  They rang again, and Reggie knocked loudly.  But still no one answered.

“Should we try to go in?” asked Francesca.

Reggie paused.  Sammy had not wanted company lately, but then…he had never let his fire go out before.

“Let’s try,” he said finally.

They tried the handle and found the door open.  Cautiously creeping inside, they heard a strange sound.  Following it into the bedroom, they found Sammy tossing and turning as he slept.

“He’s sick!” cried Reggie, springing to the bedside.  “Run get Doctor Greatpaws before it’s too late.”

Francesca ran off, and Reggie started to work.  He covered up Sammy and built up the fire.  He brought a cool cloth for his forehead and boiled water for tea.  He was just bringing in an extra blanket, when Doctor Greatpaws the bear hurried into the room.  Francesca and Reggie waited anxiously in the kitchen for nearly an hour, and finally the kind Doctor came out with good news.

”You found him in time,” he announced with a grave smile.  “He will recover, but will need lots of care.”

“I’ll stay with him,” promised Reggie.  “Just tell me what to do.”

So for two long weeks, Reggie stayed with Sammy, nursing him and feeding him, and reading him stories.  Francesca and Wally and Joshua all stopped by to bring special treats and play games by the fire.

On the fourth day of Reggie’s stay, Sammy was able to sit up in bed.  While drinking his tea, he remembered the winterberries.  Where had he left the basket?

“Reggie,” he asked, “did you find a basket of winterberries?”

“No,” replied Reggie.

“I was out picking them the day I got sick.  Maybe I left the basket outside.”

“I’ll go look,” said Reggie, springing up instantly.  In a moment he was back with the basket of still-frozen berries.   “Would you like me to make you some winterberry tea?”

Sammy looked doubtful.  “Are you sure you know how to crush them right?  Maybe you should just bring them in here and I’ll…No.”  He stopped himself.  “Thank you.  I think we will be better off if you do it.”

And Reggie did.

Maybe he could have steeped the berries a little longer, but Francesca and Joshua dropped in bursting with neighborhood news; and looking around at his chattering friends over the rim of his mug, Sammy thought it was the best cup of tea he had tasted in all his life.

Better Off, Part 1

The second (and last…for now) of the Bean Creek Chronicles, which was written for my nephew on his first Christmas. I’m doing this one in two parts because it’s a bit on the long side. Enjoy!

One especially slow, sleepy day in high summer, the sun shone so brightly that even the buzzing of the bees sounded sluggish, and all the neighbors along Bean Creek could be found sitting in the shade, sipping lemonade, or drowsily dozing in the sun.

All, that is, except one.

Sammy Bushytail was busy picking berries. Ignoring the sun beating on his back, he quickly filled his basket with the plump, juicy fruit. Then he scurried home to spread the berries on a blanket in the sun. As his little paws flew, his mind drifted far away, dreaming of crisp berry cobbler and crunchy toast with sticky jam. He was so wrapped up in his delicious daydreams that he was on his third trip home with a full fruit basket before Reggie got his attention.

Reggie Snuffles was relaxing in the shade of Wallow Cove, occasionally rolling over with a satisfying squish in the sticky mud. He wasn’t surprised at all to see his best friend Sammy concentrating so hard on work.

“Whatcha doin,’ Sammy?” he asked, scratching his snout comfortably on a nearby stump.

“Berry drying day,” said Sammy shortly, shifting the bulging basket and steadily plodding on.

“Want some help?” offered Reggie, glancing at the steep hill and his friend’s already tired face.

That stopped Sammy suddenly. It was a tempting offer, but…Reggie was not known to be a very careful worker, even if he was Sammy’s best friend. What if he bungled with the basket and spoiled all Sammy’s work? He eyed the hill, looming large in the sunlight.

“I suppose,” he accepted slowly, stealing a shuddering glance at Reggie’s muddy sides.

Reggie sidled forward and accepted the basket Sammy was reluctantly unstrapping.

“Just be careful, okay?”

Reggie started toward the hill slowly, then began trotting faster and faster…determined to be really helpful, even in the hot sun.

Sammy watched him carefully. Just as he reached the top with a bump and a jolt, a bunch of berries bounced out of the basket. Reggie didn’t notice, but Sammy sprinted up the hill to recover his loss. He caught up with Reggie at home just as he was dumping the sweet fruit onto the blanket.

“No, no, no, no!” shouted Sammy in horror.

Startled, Reggie dropped the basket.

“You’ll smash them like that! Look, give me the basket. You’ll ruin the berries. See how many you lost on the way! Thanks for your help, but you don’t know how to do this. I’m better off on my own.”

Reggie stared at Sammy in shock. “Sorry…I just wanted to help. You don’t…” He started to say something else, but swallowed it, turned and trudged sadly back to Wallow Cove.

Summer slowly fell away into autumn, and Sammy could be seen every day, always busy gathering roots and berries or grinding acorn flour from the remains of last year’s crop and always alone.

Then, one crisp, clear day, the neighbors along Bean Creek all got up before the sun. It was Acorn Harvesting Day! The last day before the frost was always the best day for acorns, and after the frost it would be too late. With so much to do in one day, everyone got involved. Mr. and Mrs. Flitter and their five children were flying toward the woods, with even baby Fiona flapping sleepily behind. Those who had no children to help them banded together to bring in the harvest.

Reggie was just locking his door when he heard his friends, Francesca and Wally and Joshua coming up the lane.

Joshua, as always, was leaping ahead, and landed with a thud right next to Reggie.
“Ready to go, Reggie?” he asked with typical enthusiasm.

“Yes,” said Reggie, smiling. It was impossible not to smile at Joshua, no matter how early in the morning it was.

“Shouldn’t we stop by to see if Sammy will join us?” asked Francesca, having arrived more sedately with Wally.

Reggie looked doubtful. He hadn’t seen much of Sammy lately, except at a distance. But after a minute, his loyalty won out.
“Yeah…let’s go see if he’s there.”

The friendly little group trudged off to Sammy’s tree. They knocked and knocked, but he didn’t answer. Just when the turned to the gate to leave, they saw Sammy headed home with a load of acorns.

“You were up early, Sammy!” said Wally.

“No time to waste,” replied Sammy briefly.

“Wanna work with us today?” asked Reggie. “It’s always faster with more people.”

Sammy looked uncomfortable. He had missed his friends very much…but on the other hand, there was no way to work together without showing them his secret hiding place, and he hated to let anyone in there. Besides, he told himself, more people will just mean more time goofing off. I don’t have time for that.

“Thank you,” he finally forced out, “but I already have a good start. I’m better off on my own today.”

The friends were a little surprised, but they all nodded and, bidding Sammy good-bye, hurried off to get to work.

Later that evening, when they had stuffed everyone’s pantries with perfect acorns, the band of friends sat outside, laughing, chatting, and watching the giant sun melt away into tomorrow.

But Sammy, whose secret hole was much larger, was scurrying back and forth to the forest late into the night. His little lantern could be seen bobbing along long after the moon had risen.

Autumn was quickly covered by winter, and no sooner had all the harvest been brought in than the snow fell thick on the houses along Bean Creek. One especially chilly day, the neighbors went outside and found the creek completely icy solid. The children all squealed with delight, and everyone bundled into scarves and hats and coats and gloves, and then scurried to the creek to slip and slide on the ice

Meanwhile, Sammy was snug in his little tree house. He cradled a cup of warm cocoa and planned his day. Hadn’t he just noticed a tiny patch of winterberries poking through the snow under the old cedars? He would mix up some fresh nut bread and while it was rising, he would just nip up there and gather some. They would make a lovely tea once they had been properly crushed. With the prospect of warm nut bread and winterberry tea for his afternoon snack, he sprang up to start, but had only gotten as far as tying on his baker’s apron when the front door-bell rang.

Reggie, wrapped in a ridiculous brown coat and wearing fuzzy orange ear muffs, was grinning with glee.
“Come skate with us, Sammy! The ice is perfect!”

Sammy smiled at his funny-looking friend. He looked so happy. It was awfully tempting, the shining sun, the shimmering ice, the shouting people. But then he remembered the winterberries. Playing now would mean someone else might pick them first.

“Thanks, but I’m busy today,” Sammy replied. “I’ve got a lot of baking to do.”

“Oh, come on, come play now,” begged Reggie. “We haven’t seen very much of you lately. And after we’ve skated we’ll all come help you with your work.”

“Oh, no, I don’t think so,” said Sammy, with a wise nod, thinking that there weren’t very many berries if they were divided up. “Too many cooks only spoil all the baking. I’m better off on my own.”

So Reggie returned to the friends at the creek side, and Sammy turned back to his nut bread.

As soon as he had carefully covered the dish of dough with a towel, Sammy slipped on his overcoat and scurried outside with his basket. He quickly found the patch of winterberries and set to work digging them out of the snow. It was very cold, and soon his paws felt numb. But he worked quickly and had soon collected all the berries. Just as he turned to leave, however, he noticed another patch a little further into the cedar woods.
He glanced at his basket. There was still room. So he moved on. Halfway through digging up the second patch, he was shivering uncontrollably, but he was so busy with his work that he didn’t even notice. The second patch was much bigger, and when he finally finished, the sun had moved well past midday. Time to be getting home.

Sammy started to pick up his basket, but it wouldn’t budge. “That’s funny,” he said to himself. “I didn’t think it was that full!” Then he realized that he couldn’t feel his paws at all! His whiskers were crusted with snow and his ears ached from the biting wind. Clumsily clutching his basket he staggered toward home, his frozen feet stumbling over the icy path. After what seemed like a fortnight, he opened his front door with a sigh and collapsed onto a chair by the stove.

But he had been gone so long the fire had gone out, so after a moment’s rest, Sammy dragged himself up to rebuild the fire. As the fire crackled to life, Sammy could feel the life seeping back into his paws.

“Better put the bread on,” he said to himself, with a sneeze.
But by the time he had the bread neatly rolled into buttered pans, he had sneezed seven times and could feel his head beginning to ache.

“I’ll just lay down for a minute while the bread bakes,” he thought, as sneeze number eight shook his body.

So he climbed into bed and fell quickly to sleep, tossing and turning he began to burn with fever. He didn’t wake up until late in the evening. A smell of burning was filling the house. Still hot with his fever he crawled to the kitchen. “My bread is ruined,” he groaned as he lifted it out and turned off the oven. But he had no strength to clean up the mess. Slowly he creeped back to bed and collapsed in a heap.

The Valley of Magical Lights

Note: I wrote this story for my niece for her first Christmas. That was…gulp…over eight years ago. Something brought it to mind recently, and I thought I’d share it with you all. This was the first story in the Bean Creek Chronicles. It was illustrated by my mother, so if it’s a bit lacking in description, it’s because you’re missing the pictures. I’d love to pass them along, but I don’t have them. Eight years ago was before my scanner. 😦 The idea was to write one for each child in the family. It worked great for my niece and nephew. Then I had my own kids! Needless to say, those other stories never got written. Maybe now I’ll have the inspiration to finish off the Chronicles. In any case, I hope you enjoy these first two installments.

As was their habit on a fine spring morning, Wally Warthopper and Francesca Nibbles sat in front of their holes on the banks of Bean Creek having tea and cookies. Francesca loved to be out and about, and Wally enjoyed nothing better than soaking in the sunshine.

Just as they started on their second cup of tea, the entire Bouncylegs family came hopping down the path towards the forest. Mr. and Mrs. Bouncylegs had thirteen children, so they made quite a parade!

“Where are you going?” asked Wally.

“To see the Shining Valley,” answered Mr. Bouncylegs.

“This is the day of the magical lights,” added Sally Bouncylegs happily.

“It’s all the way on the other side of the forest,” said Georgie, the tiniest grasshopper. He looked a little scared.

“We have to hurry, or we’ll miss the lights,” scolded Mrs. Bouncylegs, shooing Georgie along with the others.

Wally and Francesca looked at each other. Magical lights!

“That sounds wonderful!” exclaimed Francesca.

Wally just croaked his agreement.

“We should go see them,” she added, jumping up to get her coat and hat.

But Wally didn’t want to leave his comfortable spot on the bank. He thought about how far it must be to the other side of the forest and how much nicer it was to sit still and soak in the sun. “It sounds so far,” he said doubtfully, “and it looks like it might rain.”

But Francesca was tired of being inside after the long winter. And the lights sounded so exciting! She decided to go anyway.

Francesca was traipsing along happily, when a big, fat raindrop hit the top of her head. She hadn’t even noticed the big clouds that had rolled in. Soon it was pouring and she was soaked through. She tried to hide under a leaf, but the water still trickled down her neck. She was wet and cold and miserable. Just then, a giant splash almost knocked Francesca off her feet. She wiped the water from her eyes and saw a mischievous young jackrabbit right in the middle of an enormous puddle. He was dripping water, but didn’t seem to mind it.

“Whatcha doing under there? All the puddles are out here,” asked the jackrabbit with a grin. Francesca didn’t know what to say.

“My name’s Joshua,” said the enthusiastic stranger, thumping again with his back foot and making another huge splash.

“I-I-I’m Francesca,” she stuttered with cold.

“My mama always said the best way to keep warm in a spring rain was to keep hopping right through it,” said Joshua. “Watch this.” And he leaped from his puddle into another nearby puddle, causing a small tidal wave.

Francesca smiled in spite of herself.

“Well…come on,” yelled Joshua, leaping this way and that.

Francesca crept cautiously from under her leaf and stepped lightly in the edge of the nearest puddle.

“No, not like that!” corrected Joshua. “Right in the middle.”

Francesca took a big, deep, long breath…and jumped. SPLASH! She giggled. Joshua was right! This was fun! Pretty soon, she and Joshua were splishing and sploshing their way down the path. Francesca wasn’t cold at all any more. In fact, she almost felt a little disappointed she suddenly felt the sun again. The rain was gone and they were approaching the edge of the forest.

As soon as Francesca could catch her breath, she explained to Joshua about the Shining Valley. He was thrilled at the thought of a whole valley of magical lights, so he quickly agreed to come with her.

Meanwhile, Wally went inside when it started to rain. He built a fire in the fireplace and sat close, toasting marshmallows. He peered out at the nasty rain and was very, very glad that he had stayed at home where everything was warm and dry.

Francesca and Joshua waltzed down the forest path for a ways, enjoying the gentle breeze and the forest noises. They were just beginning to feel dry again and wonder where they could find some lunch, when Joshua stopped short. “Listen,” he hissed, darting a glance at the sky. This time Francesca heard the noise, too. It was a loud, high screeching. A hawk!

Joshua and Francesca dashed together as fast as they could to the base of a nearby tree. Joshua was shaking. Francesca looked every which way for a hole to hide in. Just as the hawk swooped low, she saw an opening! Pushing Joshua ahead of her, she scrambled into the little hole under a root. They could still hear the hawk circling outside. Francesca was so scared that she began to wish she hadn’t come into the forest at all.

The hawk swept by again and again, but at long last the dreadful shrieking started to fade as he moved on, scouring the forest for something else to eat. Francesca looked around her for the first time. The floor of the hole was covered with great big walnuts! It was the perfect lunch. Francesca gnawed open the shells and shared the nuts with Joshua. After they had both eaten, they felt brave enough to leave the little hole and continue on their adventure.

Meanwhile, Wally was settling into his favorite chair with an enormous plate of sandwiches and a big glass of milk. He sighed with contentment as he ate six ham and cheese and four tuna fish sandwiches. “Nothing beats a good lunch,” he said to himself. Then he picked up Fritz the Flycatcher and started to read. Having already read the book several times, he quickly dozed off.

Francesca and Joshua marched along for what seemed like ages. Dusk was just settling in, and they still couldn’t see the end of the forest. Francesca knew that the Shining Valley was right where the forest ended. But they kept walking and walking and walking…and walking. Joshua’s hops were getting a little shorter each time, and Francesca looked sadly down at her aching feet. When she looked up, she groaned. In front of them was a huge hill, looming up out of the dark like a giant.

She stopped. Joshua stopped, too. They were so tired. “How are we ever going to make it all the way up?” groaned Joshua . For a long moment, neither one moved.

“We can’t forget the magical lights,” sighed Francesca at last. “They’ll be worth it. I know they will.”

There was nothing more to say. With a big effort, they both started to climb. Joshua went first and Francesca followed, trying to ignore the bits of gravel that bit into her sore feet. They toiled up, slowly making progress until they were stopped short by a big boulder that had fallen on the path. Francesca wanted to cry. They had come so far! But Joshua wasn’t giving up. He was digging rapidly at one edge of the boulder. Francesca flopped down to wait. In a few minutes, Joshua cried excitedly, “I’m through!”. He had carved out a little tunnel. It was a tight squeeze, but when Francesca emerged, huffing and puffing, from the other side, she saw that the trees had disappeared. Just ahead was the top of the hill. They had made it through the forest. With a loud “Yippee!” she and Joshua surged to the top and began to slip and slide down the other side of the hill.

Meanwhile, Wally woke up from his nap with a stomach ache. Too many sandwiches! He swallowed a big spoonful of medicine with a grimace. The shadows outside his door were starting to get long, so he lit a lamp. He looked outside and thought how glad he was that he was not out in all that blackness. He shut the door on the gloom, pulled the armchair near to the fire and put on a big pot of soup for dinner.

With a giant giggle, Francesca and Joshua landed in a heap at the bottom of the hill. They untangled their arms and legs and ears and tails and sat up to look around. It was so dark, they couldn’t see anything! Francesca stretched out her arm and bumped into Joshua’s head.

“Ouch!” he yelped.

“What are we going to do now?” asked Francesca. “We must be near the Shining Valley, but I can’t even see a speck of light.”

She started to feel a little scared again. Joshua huddled close. It was just too dark to move, and they couldn’t think of what to do next.

Meanwhile, Wally finished off his soup with a big slurp. He felt warm and sleepy. He climbed into his big, soft bed and pulled the covers up around his ears. He felt a little lonely after being by himself all day. “I wish Francesca was here to tell me a story before bed,” he thought to himself, and with a sigh, he slowly drifted off to sleep.

Francesca and Joshua felt very cold. Francesca was just about to suggest that they try to clamber back up the hill and go home, when Joshua whispered, “Did you see that?” Off in the distance, they saw a little flickering light.

In a minute, it was joined by another light, and then another. Before Francesca could say anything, the whole air was full of little lights, dipping and swirling around each other. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. The combined glow from the lights lit up the whole valley. Francesca and Joshua had been in the Shining Valley all along! And under a clump of pines in the middle of the cavorting lights was the Bouncylegs family, standing with a group of other creatures laughing and pointing.

Francesca and Joshua went to join the group, and everyone gazed and gazed at the beautiful flickering lights. They glided and gamboled as if they were dancing. After a moment, Francesca gasped. They were dancing! And all the creatures looking on joined hands and began to dance along with them, whirling and twirling among the sparkling lights. It was one of the happiest moments of Francesca’s life. “I wish Wally could be here to enjoy this, too,” she thought to herself. But just then, Joshua went leaping by with little Georgie Bouncylegs on his back. Francesca laughed at his antics and, joining hands with Sally, skipped off to join the fun.

The Major Family in the Mines of Morado, ch. 2

If you missed chapter 1, it’s here.

If you suddenly found that you could fly, what would you do?  Would you whoop and holler and zoom around the room?  Would you tremble and shake and try to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground?  Would you laugh?  Would you cry?  Would you tell all your friends?  Or would you make it your own little secret?

Tommy Major didn’t do any of those things.  It was a bit of a shock to discover that he could hover in mid-air.  His first thought was something like, “!!!???!!!???!!!”  But then his second thought was, “Now I can follow that mysterious creature down the hole and find out what it is and what it was doing here.”  And that is exactly what he did.

Just as soon as he disappeared down the dark hole, Flops the puppy pulled his scared little tail out from between his legs and picked up one of those purple rocks from the creature’s bag.  He could feel it vibrating in his mouth.  First his head, then his body, then his tail got all warm and tingly.  He could hear a humming noise that made him howl.  And when the noise went away, there he was, floating two feet off the ground.   Then he ducked his head and flew straight down that hole after Tommy.

When Tommy and Flops got to the bottom of the deep, deep hole, they found a large cavern.  It was not so dark here because there was a tunnel leading out of the cavern and into the bright daylight outside.   Tommy could just see the dark creature gliding along that tunnel.  He gave a shout and flew straight toward it.  The creature could move very fast, but apparently it couldn’t fly, so Tommy and Flops caught up to it just as it was about to reach the outside.  Flops flew straight over and landed in front of the opening, blocking the way while Tommy reached down to grab the creature.

But he couldn’t do it.  Tommy put his hands around the creature and lifted, but it glooped right through his hands like so much jello.  Tommy was even more surprised than he had been when he found out he was flying.  Immediately, he dropped to the ground with a thud.  Ignoring his jarred legs, he reached out again, and again his hands found nothing really solid to hold on to.  The creature was black as a shadow and seemed to have legs that it was walking on, but it was nothing but goo.  As soon as it was free from Tommy’s hands, it ran ahead, straight toward Flops.  Flops barked warningly, but the creature just smooshed right through Flops’ legs and out of the tunnel.  There was nothing Tommy and Flops could do.  They stood in the opening and watched the creature disappear down the mountainside.

Tommy knew they should get back to the rest of the family.  They would be wondering where he had gone.  He whistled for Flops, and the two of them flew back up the tunnel, into the cavern, up the long chute that led them there, and into the tunnel where they had left the bag of purple stones.  Between the two of them, they managed to carry the bag back up to the place where the rest of the Major family was working.

You can imagine how Tommy’s parents and sisters felt when they saw him flying toward them!  Mr. and Mrs. Major’s eyes got wider and wider and wider, and Pansy’s mouth fell open so far that a little fly buzzed right in, and Baby Rose was so scared that she fell right down on the floor.  Tommy landed and told the family the whole story.  They carefully examined the rocks as Tommy pulled them from the bag and made a small purple pile on the floor.

Then they each took a rock.

Pansy felt the vibrating and the warm tingle.  She was so excited to start flying like her brother.  But when the feeling passed, she was still standing on the floor, and no amount of jumping could make her soar into the air.  That made her mad.  In a fit, she threw the now dull rock to the ground.  It hit the ground with such force that it buried itself in the hard rock floor.  Everyone stared.  Pansy couldn’t fly, but she was now stronger than the strongest man they had ever seen.

Mr. Major held tight to his rock while it grew warmer and warmer in his hand.  He felt the tingle pass through him.  Then he looked around to see if anything had happened.  His family just looked back at him.  He seemed the same.  Until his hands started to feel a little warm again.  He held them up and looked at them.  Then he pointed at the wall, and fire shot out of his fingertips, scorching the rock in front of him.  Mrs. Major screamed.  Pansy and Tommy cheered.

Mrs. Major thought that holding the rock felt very strange.  She also thought that it didn’t do anything to her at all.  But that was because she couldn’t see that she had turned invisible.  Her family watched her disappear, though.  They were quite impressed.

Baby Rose didn’t know what to think of that strange glowing feeling because she was only a baby.  She did know that she thought it was very, very funny when she could crawl faster than her big brother could run.  Mrs. Major may not have thought it was quite as funny, but she had much more on her mind than her worries about a super-fast baby.

They all did.  They realized that the mines of Morado held a treasure much more valuable than diamonds.  A treasure that was both wonderful and also very dangerous.  They were pretty sure that the mysterious black creature that had collected these purple rocks would be coming back to try again.  They were pretty sure that it was up to no good.  And they were pretty sure that it was now their job to protect these special rocks from anyone who was up to no good.

And so it was that the real adventures of the Major family began.

The Major Family in the Mines of Morado, ch. 1

Long ago and far away lived a family named Major.  They were a happy family of five (six, really, if you counted their hound dog, Flops): Mr. Major, Mrs. Major, Pansy, Tommy, and Baby Rose.  It was late in the fall of the year that Baby Rose was born when the Major family fell on hard times.  Mr. Major lost his job and they lost their home and would really have been in big trouble if Mrs. Major hadn’t had a brother who owned a diamond mine up in the Mountains of Morado.  No one wanted to work the mine because it was very far away and mining was very hard work.  Also no one had ever found any diamonds there.  But the Major family had very little choice, so Mr. Major accepted the job, and the five…excuse me, Flops…six of them headed off to work and live in the Mines of Morado.

It wasn’t a very fun life.  Every morning, the whole family got up before the sun and headed down the long tunnel of the mine to the place where they were supposed to be digging.  Then they all got to work.  Mr Major and Mrs. Major worked with pick axes to dig rocks away from the wall.  Pansy and Tommy carried away the rocks that fell and piled them in a far corner.  Flops watched over Baby Rose and kept her out of trouble.  It was hard work for everyone, but they were all together, and that made them happy.  Unfortunately, even with all that digging, they never did find even one little diamond.

Then one day while Tommy was hard at work a little way away from the others, he saw something move out of the corner of his eye.  He turned his head just in time to see a black shape disappear around the corner of the opening to another tunnel that led further into the mine.  With a whistle to Flops, Tommy began to follow the shadow.  Flops was right behind him.

Tommy ran fast, but he couldn’t see the shadow anymore.  He wondered if he had just imagined it, but when he stopped to turn back he heard a noise.  Tc-tc-shhhhht.  Tc-tc-shhhhht.  Tc-tc-shhhhhht.  The sound was coming from further on down the tunnel.  Tommy moved closer.  Finally, he could see the shadow again, but he couldn’t tell what it was.  It seemed to be some sort of creature, low to the ground and creeping along.  It was pulling a large bag, which is what made the noise.

Tommy gave a great yell and ran toward the creature, with Flops in hot pursuit.  They never even got close.  Abandoning the bag, the creature ran a few more feet down the tunnel and disappeared down a hole in the floor.  Tommy and Flops ran to the edge of the hole and looked down.  It was very dark, so Tommy picked up a small rock and dropped it into the hole.  He could hear it echoing as it fell down, down, down.  The hole was very deep, much too deep for Tommy to try to follow the shadow creature.  Instead he turned around and went back to look at the bag that the creature had left behind.

The bag was very heavy.  It seemed to be full of rocks.  Tommy opened the end and pulled out one of the rocks.  It was purple and sparkled, even in the dim light.  While Tommy was holding it, he could feel it vibrating in his hand.  First his hand, then his arm, then his whole body got very warm and tingly.  He could hear a humming in his head.  The feeling lasted for just a moment, and when it was gone, the rock wasn’t sparkling anymore.  Tommy didn’t know what had happened.  He held out the rock to Flops, who sniffed it and then backed away.  Tommy decided to drag the bag of rocks back to his family and ask them what they thought.  When he stood up to go, Flops started to bark at him.

“Quiet, Flops!” said Tommy, but Flops didn’t listen.  He just barked harder.  It was strange; Flops was normally such a well-behaved dog. “What’s the matter, boy?” asked Tommy, bending down to pat Flops’ head.  Then he realized how far he had to bend down.  And that was when he saw that his feet weren’t touching the tunnel below him.

Tommy was hovering in the air about a foot off the ground.

Celeste and the Tree of the Four Winds, ch. 3

Walking on the clouds was a wonderful feeling.  Her feet felt as if they were sinking into plush carpet.  The air was brisk and cool around her, while the sun warmed her from above.  The sky was a brilliant blue and the various shapes of the clouds around her made interesting landscapes. Celeste could see the tree ahead of her, growing steadily closer, and for a while it seemed that her struggles were almost at an end.

Then the eagle came.

Swooping down from the sky as if from nowhere, it was fully ten times bigger than any eagle Celeste had ever seen.  Its wicked-looking curved beak was as big as her head, and its razor-sharp talons were easily big enough to pick her right up off her feet and carry her off as if she were a fish.  And Celeste had plenty of opportunity to see that beak and those talons up close because the eagle repeatedly dived straight for her head.  Celeste ducked and dodged and more than once fell headlong into the clouds, coming up with a mouth full of water.  She had never been so terrified in her life, and without thinking she began to sing the lullaby again as she ran.  She sprinted toward the tree with her head as low as she could keep it, expecting at any moment to feel the sting of those cruel talons and beak.  The pain never came.  The eagle continued to assault her, soaring up only to swoop down toward her again, beating her head with its wings, but somehow Celeste always managed to just evade disaster.  At last, just when she thought her heart would burst and her legs give out, she stumbled one last time and felt her head hit something solid.  It was a root.  She had made it to the Tree of the Four Winds.  With one last heart-stopping shriek, the eagle swooped up and perched on the highest branch, where it sat glaring at her with its beady eyes.

Celeste was trembling all over.  She couldn’t make her arms and legs move at all.  Her voice had completely given out.  She didn’t even have the strength to be amazed that the eagle had not killed her.  She just lay there gasping for breath and trying to pull herself together.  After what seemed like hours, Celeste finally felt strong enough to move again.  Very cautiously, she lifted her head and looked up.  The eagle hadn’t moved.  High up in the tree, Celeste could see some red fruit.  It should be possible to climb up to them.  Celeste lowered her head again.  What was she going to do?  If she tried to climb the tree to pick the fruit, would the eagle attack her again?  But what choice did she have?  She couldn’t just lie there forever.  Besides, her mother needed that fruit.  With that thought, Celeste stood up.

The eagle let out a loud cry, but it didn’t move.  Taking heart from that, though still trembling, Celeste carefully began to climb the tree.  Fortunately, the branches were low and close together, so that climbing was really not too difficult.  If it weren’t for the bright eyes of the eagle staring at her through the leaves, Celeste would have found it almost enjoyable.  As it was, she had a hard time forcing herself to go on.  Every new step up brought her closer to those waiting talons.

Finally, Celeste could see the fruit on a branch just above her.  Bracing her weight against the tree trunk she reached up.  The eagle shook out it’s wings.  Celeste wrapped her hand around the fruit.  The eagle let out a harsh scream.  Celeste pulled, and the fruit came away from the branch.

For a long while it was completely silent.

Then a voice said, “Well done, daughter.”

Celeste was so surprised she almost fell out of the tree.  She looked all around to see who was speaking to her.  It wasn’t until he spoke again that she realized it was the eagle.

“I knew you would be the one,” he said.

“You…but you…but why were you attacking me?”

“I am the guardian of the tree.  It is my job to keep away the unworthy.  I had to see if you were worthy.”

“You mean you never meant to hurt me?”

“Not if you had the courage to continue.”

Celeste thought about that for a long time.  Then she said, “Now that I have the fruit, can I just go?  You won’t chase me anymore?”

“I won’t chase you anymore.  You have proved yourself worthy.”

“I’d better get going then,” Celeste said.  “I may be too late as it is.  It is a long journey home, and my mother is very weak.”

“There is a faster way, you know,” said the eagle.

“Where is it?” asked Celeste eagerly.  “Could you show me?”

“I am the way,” said the eagle.  He flexed his giant talons.

Celeste just stared.  Was he suggesting what she thought he was suggesting?  The very thought of it terrified her.

“If you trust me, I can have you home before the sun sets.”

Thinking of her mother, Celeste pushed down all her fears and nodded her head.  With no further warning, the eagle swooped down, seized her in his talons and flew away.  Whether an eagle’s view was beautiful, Celeste could not have said.  She kept her eyes shut tight the whole time, clutching the fruit in her hands.

At long last, the eagle sailed down, down out of the sky and lightly set Celeste on the grass outside her own little cottage.

“Thank you, oh thank you!” cried Celeste breathlessly, and she was already running inside.

It was very dim in the house.  There was no fire on the hearth.

“Mother?” called Celeste.  There was no answer.  She began to fear the worst, that she had already come too late.

Quickly she ran to the bedroom door and opened it.  Her mother was lying on the bed, pale and still, but Celeste could see that her chest was slowly rising and falling.  She was still alive.  Celeste cut a small piece from the fruit and held it up to her mothers lips and watched as she slowly ate it.  Almost immediately a little color came back into her mother’s cheeks.  Then she opened her eyes and smiled.

“Celeste,” she said in a very faint voice, “you are here.  I was so worried.”

“I went to get this for you to eat, Mother.  It will make you well again.  Please, eat more.”

And she did.  And by the morning all her pain was gone, and she got up out of bed and began to do her usual chores, and the doctor came and shook his head again, but this time it was in wonder that such a miracle had occurred.

Celeste and her mother continued to live very happily in their cottage from that day on, and if you walked past their windows in the evenings, you would hear a beautiful voice singing a lovely lullaby, and you would feel, just for a moment, as if you could do absolutely anything.

Celeste and the Tree of the Four Winds, ch. 2

Celeste stared at the old woman, “I can save my mother?  What can I do?  I don’t know anything about medicine or miracles or anything at all.  I’m just a girl.”

“Precisely,” the wise woman replied.  “It’s precisely because you are just a girl that only you can save her.  Listen close, child, and I will tell you what you came to find out.  There is a cure for your mother…”

Celeste gasped, “What is it?  Do you have it?”

“Patience, child.  There is a cure for your mother, but no one can give it to you.   If she is to live, she must eat an apple from the Tree of the Four Winds which grows all alone among the clouds.”

“Among the clouds?  What does that mean?”

“Among the clouds there is a tree.  Its roots are in the sky and its branches touch heaven.  But it is said that only the young and pure can climb to the Tree of the Four Winds and safely pick its fruit.  I can show you the path, but I cannot go with you.  No one can.”

Celeste nodded.  It was all so hard to take in, but she did understand at last why the old woman had said that the time was short.  If she had a long journey to find this tree and and its fruit, she must go now.  Her mother would not last more than a few days.

With a small groan, the wise woman stood up and hobbled along the path that led away from the house and towards the father.  She could move surprisingly quickly.  She led Celeste into the forest and up a small hill.  As they climbed, the trees got thinner and thinner until they reached the top, which had no trees at all except for one that had fallen long ago and now was a mossy log.  The old woman dropped onto this natural seat with a sigh.  Celeste waited patiently for her to catch her breath.  After a few minutes, the old woman seemed to feel better, but still she said nothing.  Celeste began to find it harder and harder to be patient.  Finally she ventured to say, “Will we be going on soon?”

The wise woman smiled.  “I will go no farther.  You can see your way from here.”

Celeste looked eagerly around, but she couldn’t see any path.  She glanced back at the old woman, but she was gazing off into the distance…gazing up.  Celeste followed her gaze.  There in the lovely blue sky, she saw clouds, great billowing fluffy clouds and funny little puffball clouds and one cloud that was thin and wispy and had a lone tree growing from it.

Celeste felt her heart fall.  How was she ever going to get way up there?  She would need wings like a bird.  Or a ladder as tall as a mountain.  A mountain.  Celeste looked at the Duros Mountains far off in the distance.  The tallest of them, Mount Hart, had his head in the clouds.  Maybe, just maybe, if she could climb that mountain and step out onto those clouds, she could find a path through the clouds to the Tree of the Four Winds.  The whole idea sounded crazy, but she had no choice.  She must try something.  Without further delay, Celeste said goodbye to the wise woman and began to walk in the direction of the Duros Mountains.

It was not an easy journey.  The forest was thick and tangled.  Twigs scratched Celeste’s face and branches snagged and tore her dress.   At the end of the first day, she was only halfway to Mount Hart, and all the food in her small bag was gone.  When it was too dark to see her way, Celeste lay down under the trees and tried to sleep, but she was stiff and sore and more than a little scared.  It was a long night.  The second day was no better than the first.  The trees thinned out and walking was easier, but now Celeste was very hungry.  She found a few berries to eat as she walked, but they didn’t do much to take away the gnawing in her stomach.

Late in the afternoon, Celeste finally stepped out of the forest and saw Mount Hart standing before her.  She was very tired and knew there were not many hours until dark, but she did not wait.  Pausing only to take a long drink from a stream, Celeste began to climb the mountain.  The mountain was even more difficult than the forest.  The way was steep, and Celeste’s legs cried out from the effort of carrying her higher.  Often, she had to use her hands to pull herself up, and the rocks scraped and cut her.  She was hungrier than ever.  Once again, it grew dark.  Once again, Celeste was forced to stop and wait out the night.  This time she did not sleep at all.  Her only bed was hard rock, and a cold wind made her shiver.  She was very worried about her mother.  She knew that if this journey took much longer, she would arrive too late to be of any help.  The task seemed hopeless.  Celeste huddled in a miserable ball and began to sing softly.  She sang the little lullaby that her mother loved so well, and as she sang, she felt her courage rise again.  In spite of the cold and the darkness and the worry, for just a while, Celeste felt sure that she could do anything she needed to do.  She would save her mother; there could be no doubt about it.  She sang and sang until her voice gave out, and then she wrapped her cloak around her tighter and waited until morning.

In the morning light, Celeste’s courage was strengthened.  This may be an impossible task, but she would not give up trying.  The sun warmed her back as she began to climb higher and higher, humming softly under her breath.  It was mid-morning when Celeste climbed right into the middle of a cloud.  It was cold and wet and misty all around her, but she was so relieved she began to laugh.  With new energy, she climbed higher still, until at last she came out above the clouds.  Every way she looked, she could see white puffs of clouds stretching out to the horizon, and far off in the distance, just a little higher than the other clouds, she could see the faint wispy cloud that carried the Tree of the Four Winds.

Celeste set down her bag.  Something told her that she would not be allowed to bring anything with her on this part of the journey.  With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and stepped away from the solid rock onto the nearest puff of white.  She stopped, waiting to feel herself fall, but the feeling never came.  Finally, she peeped her eyes open and looked down, amazed.  She had done it.  She was standing on the clouds.