By Eric Tamburino (Rated PG)
The story you are about to hear is probably best described as timeless. I believe my mother may have been the first to tell me this story, but then again it was one of my father’s favorites. In any event, I have heard it more times than I care to count in my search for the truth of its origins. I cannot promise you that I am telling you the original version, however I can tell you with great confidence that the story I am about to tell is as close to the truth as any man can find; for like any good folktale it is hard to pin down the details.
To this day, no one can tell you how the little boy and the little girl’s journey began or even what their names were. They were simply there. Eleven or twelve years old, holding hands and traveling down the path together. The path to which I refer is, of course, the path through the forest and the dark valley.
As the night grew darker both felt a little uneasy, though neither would admit to it. The little boy had begun to suspect that they were lost and the little girl was, in fact, quite sure of it. With no signs or directions the two continued on until they came upon an old stone bridge. That is where they met the giant who had been sleeping beneath it.
“Where are you little ones off to?” the giant asked.
“We are traveling to the City of Pearls,” the little girl replied.
“Why?” the giant asked. “You are both so young.”
“Because that is where our parents are,” she answered.
It was at this point that the little boy spoke up. “Dear giant, would you please be kind enough to tell us if we are heading in the right direction?”
“This is the correct path,” he said. “But it would not be wise to travel alone. There are many dangers between here and your destination.”
“Who will take us?” the little boy asked the little girl. “There is no one out here and we are much too small to defend ourselves.”
“The giant will take us.” The little girl said pointing to him.
The giant’s stoic face remained motionless as stone but the little girl thought that the lines in his face were kind and his eyes held all of the sorrow of the world.
“I suppose,” the giant said, picking up a small satchel and swinging it over his shoulder.
Then the two children and the giant headed off towards the dark valley.
The trio had not travelled far when their journey was interrupted by sounds that the children suspected might be a birthday celebration.
As they grew nearer they saw a long wooden table set just off to the side of the pathway in what appeared to be a marsh. The table offered a smattering of every type of food imaginable and at the table sat dozens of obese men and women. They ate greedily, the environment not deterring them. They all wore large diapers, soiled and leaking, and they sat in the muck of the marsh, slowly submerging deeper and deeper. Some were still high enough to see over the table’s edge while others reached up and grabbed for food blindly. One man had submerged up to his chin, his arms nowhere to be seen, and he begged his neighbor to throw him scraps. A large banner hung over them. It read, Tomorrow We Die.
As one of the fattest members of the table finished a tray of sweets, a firefly-like creature came with a fresh bounty. The fat man chortled with excitement and began to indulge once more.
Though some members complained about feeling bloated or ill, with each lavish assortment that came, an enticing aroma accompanied it, smelling better and better than the last, and everyone continued to eat. No one could see where the food came from, only that there was no shortage.
“Who are they?” asked the little girl.
“Those who are afraid of death,” the giant answered.
A nearby woman at the table overheard them. Her swollen belly lifted up from its sagging position in the marsh water as she turned as far as she could to face them.
“No, we are not!” she said, a cigar held in her teeth. “We are simply happier than most to be alive.”
“We should move along,” the giant told the children, ignoring her.
The two children stared at the food. Neither had eaten for some time and the scent of each dish was so thick they could almost taste it. Their mouths began to salivate.
“Excuse me, but would you mind sharing some of your food?” asked the little boy.
“Not at all, child,” the woman answered between puffs of her cigar, and her fat jiggled as she motioned with a flabby arm for them to join.
The giant remained on the path, watching as the two children stepped into the murky water.
“How did you train the fireflies to bring you food?” the little boy asked, watching as more food was placed in front of the newcomers.
The cigar woman laughed. “They are not fireflies, child. They are fairies.”
At this, the little girl smiled. She had heard of fairies in many of the bedtime stories her parents had told her, and had always hoped to have the chance to meet one. She reached out her hand as one of the tiny creatures passed by and it bit her with such ferocity her finger began to bleed.
The little girl gave a quick yelp and pulled her hand back.
“Tssk, tssk,” the cigar woman said. “We musn’t touch them.”
The child blushed. She had only meant to catch the fairy to have a good look at it. In the stories, and in her imagination, fairies had always been the most beautiful creatures but as she studied them, one by one as they laid more food in front of her, she saw that these fairies were quite hideous.
Sharp teeth remained exposed, jutting out in front of their tiny lips. Their bodies were thin as twigs and crinkly wrinkled skin, like an overcooked piece of chicken, clung to their gaunt faces. One stared back at her for a moment, drooling. It’s disproportionate oval eyes held only darkness.
The little girl wondered if they were so ugly because they were swamp fairies and she began to eat.
Time passed unnoticed like the air on a still day. The children each sat on a tiny patch of grass in the marsh perfectly content as they ate, and they ate well. When each dish arrived at the table the woman with the cigar explained what region it came from. There were cheeses and breads (both toasted and untoasted), salmon, trout, bass, and cod, chicken, beef, and many other things the children did not recognize followed by cakes, puddings, cookies, and chocolates. Each child ate until they felt content and then continued to the point of sickness.
The little boy held his rounded stomach and began to rock back and forth crying, still holding a cookie in his hand.
“If you take a nap it will help,” the woman with the cigar said.
The giant spoke up from his perch on the path. “We should be going, little ones.”
“Who is he anyway?” The lady asked, lighting a new cigar, “Where is he taking you, children?”
“He is our friend! He is leading us to the City of Pearls,” the little girl replied. Then she had what she believed was a marvelous idea and added, “Why don’t you all come with us?”
The lady smiled. “Oh, sweet child. The City of Pearls is quite far from here and the fairies could not carry us that far.”
“Besides,” called another man who had heard their conversation, “travel is exhausting.”
“What if you walked with us?” the giant asked.
The cigar woman shot him a sour glance. “You know that would be impossible.”
“But why?” asked the little girl.
The woman set down her cigar and she looked off to the distance through glassy eyes. “My dear, none of us have walked in ages,” she answered.
The little girl looked down the length of the table. For a brief moment the feast stopped. A few began to cry silently, others looked at the food but no longer with lust.
“Are you sure you wish to leave? You are more than welcome to stay with us.” The cigar woman said.
“Thank you, but I am afraid we must go.” the little girl answered.
“Would you like some food for the road?” the woman asked.
“Oh yes please!” the child answered delighted.
With that the merriment began again as a sack was passed around the table and filled with an assortment of the table-goers favorites. Disputes began and food was flung but eventually the children were given the pack and, carrying it between the two of them, they made their way back to the giant.
As the three continued their journey down the path, the children grew tired of carrying the sack of provisions they had received. They asked the giant to carry it for them but he told them he already carried a pack with all that they would need. The children grumbled and groaned as they trudged on. The little girl was the first to let go and after the little boy had dragged the pack for only a few minutes, he too left it behind.
The children continued to complain until the little boy caught sight of a creature that made him forget all about food.
Up ahead, along the edge of the bushes by the trees sat a rabbit in a cage.
“A bunny!” the boy cried and before the giant could protest both the little boy and the little girl had run over to it.
“I wonder whose bunny it is?” asked the little girl.
As if in answer to her question, the bushes began to rustle. The two froze until a rather short portly pig poked his head through the bushes.
“I see you’ve found my bunny!” he said with a snort.
The children stifled a giggle.
“What is her name?” asked the little girl.
The pig thought for a minute scratching his head with a hoof which once again made the children giggle,for it was quite an odd sight.
“I don’t know,” the pig finally answered. “Would you like to see the rest of them?”
“We should stick to the path,” the giant interjected.
“Oh please,” begged the little boy. “I’m sure it’s not far.”
“Of course not!” declared the pig. “It’s just through here.”
The pig pulled back the bushes and motioned to the children, who both scrambled through before the giant could stop them.
“No worries, big fella!” the pig said to the giant. “I’m sure you can see over these here bushes from up there.”
With that he turned to the children and let the bushes close behind him.
On the other side of the shrubbery, just beyond the path, the decrepit trees swayed ever so slightly like the gnarled hands of an old witch. Dark hues of red and orange lingered, left by the setting sun. But the children did not notice. Their eyes were fixed on the cages which had been laid out and heaped up upon each other. The eerie sound of cages swinging in the breeze like chimes made them look up to see even more cages dangling from the tree branches. All were filled with bunnies. Large and small, young and old alike, some were kept alone while others were in pairs or even groups. Black, brown, and white bunnies.
The children stared in awe as hundreds of pigs cycled through the maze of cages, staring as if they were at a petting zoo, or perhaps, a buffet.
“What do you do with them all?” the little girl asked.
The pig stood as if carved from stone. His eyes glossed with a light film. The little girl wondered if they were perhaps magic bunnies possessing the power to hypnotize other creatures. He answered her slowly and with deliberation.
“We… watch… them,” he said with a snort. “Yes. We watch them.”
A small line of spittle began to reach for the ground from his jowls.
“Come on, let’s go see them,” the little boy said and together they pressed deeper into the maze.
With each bunny they passed the children’s eyes began to grow dimmer.
The little girl stopped to watch a bunny with the most beautiful golden brown fur. She found herself wanting to touch it for it looked to be the softest. She imagined what it might be like if it let her touch it. The bunny inched closer to the little girl pressing its little pink nose to the wiring of the cage. It’s big black eyes watching the little girl with curiosity.
“Did you say something?” the little girl asked. For a moment she had thought she had heard a whisper.
“Help me!” the bunny screamed.
Startled the little girl stumbled backwards and fell.
The bunny slammed into the cage over and over until it began to rattle like a drum accompanying the horrific screeches.
Two pigs in white garments came and scooped up the cage, taking it away.
“There, there,” said a pig, stopping to help the little girl up. “It’s okay. It happens occasionally.”
“What happens?” the little girl asked.
“Some of the bunnies aren’t ready to be seen. It’s okay, they will bring her back when she’s ready.”
The little girl didn’t know what to say.
“What about you?” the pig asked, his eyes darkening. “I’d quite like to watch you.”
The child turned for her companion but he had left her. It was just her and the pig. He stood much larger than her with browning warts under his eyes, half a tusk on one side, and little white whiskers hanging down from what served as his chin.
“I would like to leave now,” the little girl said firmly.
“Are you sure?” the pig asked. “I bet I’m not the only one.”
Other pigs had begun to move towards them, listening to their disagreement. The little girl once more looked for her companion.
She did not see the boy but rather the giant. He had left his perch on the path to find her when the little boy had returned to him. He scowled at the pigs and they fled in terror for fear of what he might do to them. Then the giant took the little girl by the hand and led out of the bushes.
The children, once more reunited with their friend, continued on down the path till they reached the edge of the wood. Though it was night they could see a light in the distance.
“Is that the City of Pearls?” the children asked.
“We are so close,” the boy said with excitement.
“We must still cross the dark valley,” the giant replied.
The children looked at the steady incline into darkness between them and their destination.
“How do you know of these places?” the girl asked.
“Now is not the time,” the giant replied. “We must make camp.”
The giant grabbed several branches from the edge of the wood and the children gathered twigs and leaves for kindling. After the giant had arranged them as desired he produced a flint from his satchel. A quick strike created a spark which, coupled with a few well timed breaths, generated a fire which the children drew closer to as the night grew colder and the shadows rose.
The giant then produced bits of bread and a flask of water. He offered them to the children who accepted, but as they bit into the bread and tasted the water they both began to miss the exotic flavors of the marsh food. Once more they began to complain until the giant silenced them.
They sat in silence until the little girl once more requested, “Dear giant, please tell us how you know the way to the City of Pearls.”
“The way is straightforward and the path is clear,” the giant answered.
“But how do you know of the places at which we stopped?”
“I have travelled these woods and the path through this valley for many years. Sometimes alone and sometimes with others. Legend says there are seven secrets to the City of Pearls. I have watched and learned and recorded all that I could find: six of its seven secrets,” he said gently tapping his book.
“What of the seventh?” the little boy asked.
“I have never discovered it,” The giant said.
The fire crackled.
“What about the dragon?” the little girl asked. “Is that the seventh secret?”
“Dragon!” The little boy began to laugh. “How silly are you? Everybody knows that dragons aren’t real.”
“They are,” the giant said, silencing the boy.
The children both developed a look of unease and their eyes began wandering through the darkness at the edges of the camp imagining things.
“There is no need to fear him while you sleep. I will stay up and keep watch,” said the giant.
The little girl did not seem convinced but laid her head down anyway.
“What do you carry with you to the city?” The giant asked.
The boy produced a rabbit’s foot from his pocket. “I want to show my parents,” the boy confessed.
The little girl produced half a cookie from her dress pocket. “I want my parents to at least have a taste.”
The giant did not chide them. He merely nodded. “Sleep. There is a long journey ahead.”
With that, the two children closed their eyes and within moments began to breathe in the rhythmic way that only comes with sleep.
In the light of the morning, the children and the giant began their descent into the dark valley. Though the sun rose higher in the sky, the valley seemed to counter the light growing darker with each step. It seemed as if the valley swallowed everything that entered and now the three grew closer to its belly. The ground began to level and they found themselves by piles of charred remains and mountains of debris. Specks of ash kicked up with the wind before falling back down as graceful as flakes of snow. The giant reached into his satchel and removed a tear of white cloth. He dangled it before them like a carrot that leads a horse.
“Halt! No closer,” cried a voice. “Lily or Rose?”
“Neither,” the giant answered.
“Impossible! Lily or Rose?” the voice asked again.
“We are traveling to the City of Pearls,” the giant answered.
An old man stood from his hiding place beneath a bit of coal and dust, a bow and arrow in hand. He brushed himself off, but the ash only seemed to smear and streak on his tunic.
“The City of Pearls, eh? Why in the world would you want to go there?”
“Our parents are there,” the little girl explained.
The old man ran his fingers through what was left of his sparse hair eying the three quizzically.
“A giant and two children off to the City of Pearls. Sounds like a load of hogwash! But I’m heading across the valley anyway, how’s about I escort you? This here is a warzone you fools just walked into. Yeah, yes it is. And if I find out this is some sort of trick I’ll kill you where you stand!”
The giant nodded and with a wave of his hand the old man began to lead the way.
As they passed through the valley, the old man rambled on aimlessly about just about anything, until the little boy asked where all the ash came from.
“You want to know where all the ash came from? Well it’s from the flowers, silly! You folks really aren’t from around here, huh? A long time ago there were two kings who lived right here on either end of this here valley and the valley was filled one side with lilies and the other with roses. Split right down the middle like something out of a fairy story. So anyway, one day the king of the lilies goes and falls in love. So what do you think he did? Well of course! He wanted a rose to give to the lass. But you see, he didn’t have any. He was the king of the lilies, not roses. So he sent a messenger all the way over to the far end of the valley to request a trade from his neighbor king; part of the valley’s roses for part of the lilies. Ah! but you see the rose king didn’t want no lilies. They weren’t worth nuthin’ in his eyes. So he refused. Almost drove the poor lily king mad. Eventually, he decided he only needed one rose, just one. So he sent a spy out in the night to steal one for him. But what he didn’t know was that the rose king was crazy and had the roses counted every day. Every day! Can you believe it? So when he finds out one of the roses is missing, oh boy, he got mad. He got so mad he took a torch to the field and burned all the lilies. Naturally, the lilly king didn’t like that very much so he burned all the roses. Thus the war of the lilies and roses ensued.”
“What a terrible story,” the little girl said. “When did this happen?”
“My granddaddy’s granddaddy served under the king of the lilies. Oh, it’s been a long war but you can bet we’re gonna win it soon!”
A sudden movement to the right caught the old man’s eye. He nocked and fired an arrow before anyone could stop him.
The arrow sang through the air until it reached its mark, striking the woman at the base of her skull as she tried to flee. She fell in a cloud of soot. No one said a word until they heard the cry of the infant she had been carrying.
“Oh a bunch of cowards those red roses are! You see how she tried to just run away?”
“She was not a soldier,” the giant commented.
“No, I suppose not, but it looks like she was raising one. No matter,” the old man said as he walked over to the infant which had begun to cry. He looked around for a minute, sizing up the boulders and rubble.
“We are just near the valley’s edge now. You just keep going that-a-ways and you’ll come to the base of the mountain. You just go on up straight, don’t try to skirt around it or come back through here. If you ain’t careful this war will kill ya. You’re lucky you found me,” the old man said wrapping his arms around a large chunk of rubble and bracing his knees to lift. The infant continued to cry.
The little girl looked to the giant. He put his arms around the children, turning them away from the war and in the direction the old man had pointed. The baby wailed and wailed until its cries were cut off by a loud thud. The children and the giant continued on. No one looked back to the dark valley.
The touch of the light came as a subtle change but similar to the smell of food gently wafting through the breeze to a hungry traveler they all began to feel its effects. The children’s mood began to lift as they ascended from the dark valley. Though they had not noticed in the valley they had become quite dirty with ash and soot and the children giggled at the giant and at each other.
The road grew steeper with each step as the trio began their way up the mountain. They traveled in silence with the exception of the passing wind and the tiny pebbles shifting beneath their feet. Like the slow trickle of water from a spigot, they happened upon other people traveling up the mountain. At first they saw just one or two others, but as they continued on they discovered small caravans.
A girl, roughly the same age as the little boy and girl traveling with the giant, asked the children where they were headed.
“We are traveling to the City of Pearls,” the little boy answered.
The stranger girl began to snicker. “You will never make it silly!”
“Why not?” asked the little boy.
“Because you don’t have any bread!” She exclaimed holding up several small loaves for the children to examine.
“Why would we need bread?” asked the little boy.
The stranger girl scowled. “Everybody knows you need to bring bread to enter the City of Pearls.”
The little boy wondered why bread was required to enter the city or even where that notion had come from but before he could reply he heard his companion arguing with another traveler. He walked over and joined their conversation.
A middle-aged man with a wispy beard looked down, irritated with the little girl.
“But why won’t I be able to enter the City of Pearls!” she demanded.
“Bones,” replied the middle-aged man. “Bones of your enemies are required to be permitted into the city.”
The giant ignored the conversations.
As their journey up the mountain continued so did the conditions for entering the City of Pearls. Some travelers claimed bread was required, others said bones, still others argued that a written account of good deeds was required, while others said that nothing more was required than a contract signed in blood.
But even as the children tried to make sense of it all, telling one group of people they had met their peers (the carriers of bread, or bones, or good deeds, or contracts) even then the caravans would respond, “We passed them days ago. They are not the same as us for they do not have enough bread, or bones, or good deeds, or contracts.” And so the little children took after their guardian and continued their journey in silence. They came to a stop at the edge of a crowd, or rather, what appeared to be an angry mob.
Sects of people shouted in unison, chanting hollow words over and over. Meanwhile, others began to push and shove and grumble to each other until the whole crowd seemed to have a mind of its own like a hive of bees buzzing in unison enraged at the death of their queen. One moment they stood at the outskirts of the crowd and the next they were sucked in by it. Even the giant with all of his might struggled to keep his hands on the children as they were pushed and shoved through the crowd until they saw what was the matter.
At the front of the crowd with no one before them, the children gasped at the sight. They stood on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a lake of fire. The flames licked at their toes and the giant pulled them a step back from the precipice.
The roar of the crowd behind them became nothing more than a din of noise, a mumbling in the background compared to the cacophony of screams which came from the lake. The children watched in disbelief and horror as bodies danced in horrible contortions amidst the flames.
Some in the crowd only took a moment while others gazed upon the City of Pearls in silent prayer but all eventually went back the way they had come or cast themselves from the cliff into the burning lake.
“What is this place?” the little girl asked, shielding her eyes.
“I do not know,” the giant answered.
He knelt down, meeting them at their gaze.
“But there is your city just beyond the flames.”
“Is there no boat?” the little boy asked.
“No,” The giant answered.
“Then how do we…” the child’s voice drifted as he realized. “You only know six of the seven secrets.”
The giant spoke, “One may not linger here. We must go. Forward or backward, it doesn’t matter, but none may linger on the edge for long.” The giant rose and turned to leave.
The children took one final glance at the obstacle which obscured them from their destiny. Then, taking hands as they always did in times of fear, they stepped off the edge together.
The giant looked over his shoulder to see the children step off of the edge. Down they plummeted until they landed in the lake of fire. He reached for them and for the first time in all of his travels the flames kissed him. He pulled back, writhing in agony. He had led many to the City of Pearls but he had never stayed to see what became of them and he had never looked back. Now he watched as his youngest companions lay adrift in the flames, at the mercy of something far greater than himself.
The smoke rose and stung his eyes violently, obscuring his vision but he continued to watch. He could not look away. He felt the sudden urge to jump in after them but he knew he could not. The desire to turn and flee followed. A dark cloud rose like a puff from a dragon’s snout and the giant lost sight of them.
When at last he caught sight of them again, they stood on the opposite shore clothed in white, their garments and possessions lost to the flames.
A smile creased the giant’s stoic face and he rose. The children waved to him and called out.
“Oh, won’t you join us, gentle guardian?”
But the giant did not answer. He clutched his satchel and turned away. There would be others like them who would desire to get to the City of Pearls and he alone knew six of the seven secrets. If he did not help them on their journey, if he did not guard them along their way, who would?
Editor’s Note: This story comes from a short anthology called Reflections of Reality that can be found here.