I had been hiding in the trash can for nearly ten minutes, but I had yet to hear a peep from the approaching kids. The sunlight pierced through the thick green plastic, surrounding me in a womb of emerald light. But that was about the only magic, because my ankles were getting sore and the faint odor of rotten food was beginning to irritate me. Where were they? I wondered. They should have been here by now.
Slowly, I pushed open the lid, peering through the crack for any sign of the kids. They weren’t even in the driveway yet. Something must have gone wrong. I stood to full height, my chest rising above the rim of the open bin. The lid, hinged on the back side, slapped open. No one. Damn. I hopped up and over the bin, a feat requiring a surprising athleticism. That’s what makes it my particular joke. Anyone can climb into a household trash can, but there’s a certain grace required to get into one of these big green curbside bins. I picked up my pack with resignation, and headed up the gravel drive. The kids would have to wait.
“What’s the surprise?” Silke asked, when I caught back up with her and the children. They were hardly outside the gate.
“I can’t tell you. Sorry. You were supposed to follow me. Maybe I wasn’t clear.”
“Yeah, but what was it?” Silke asked again. The kids pestered me too. Everyone was smiling, including me. Secrets are so much fun.
“Sorry,” I said, my face plastered with a big grin. “I can’t tell you. It would ruin it.” Then I grew serious. “We’ll have to wait for another day. Let’s go the normal way. We’ve already wasted so much time.”
Silke cocked her head at me, then gave in. “Okay,” she said, turning to the kids in her sing-song voice, “this way children…” And she veered down the path, opposite the driveway. Slung over her shoulder was a small canvas bag with two wooden swords. And thank goodness.
We had come but a short distance down the path when we suddenly came face to face with a massive changeling, the caterpillar. Fierce and loathsome, it’s massive maw appeared to be chewing some kind of viscous pulp, and its lower lip was dripping with saliva. It even had the audacity to smile as it leered at us. “Take a look, children,” Silke said, her voice lilting in falsetto, “I see the caterpillar.” I expected her to slay the villain with one blow, but she kept her swords sheathed. Of course she did. She had drawn all the creatures along our path to Bone Canyon. Perhaps she had laid some charm over them too. “I think it’s a dragon,” I said, kicking the wooden block with my toe. Guinevere, who rode sidesaddle in the back, giggled and said, “No it’s not.” That’s exactly what they want you to think.
It was the second day of kindergarten, Tuesday, September 26th, when our merry band set off. We had packed provisions and bid farewell to the tortoise-man and his eleven brides. Passing through the alchemical gate and into the wide zodiacal sea, we had thus first encountered the changeling caterpillar, but without harm. We had but one goal in mind - Bone Canyon, legend of legends, storied graveyard and seat of majesty.
“Tarantula hawk!” shouted Andrew, racing into the sagebrush. I lunged for one of the swords – what kind of awful thing was that? – but Silke turned calmly to Andrew, who, along with Sebastian, had trapped the insect against a sagebrush. The other children were fighting for a view. I walked up from behind, staring at the finger-sized wasp as it tried to free itself from the cage of children. True to its name, the wasp is a tarantula hunter that stings and paralyzes its hefty prey and then drags it home to its lair. And it was right on time. The annual mating season for tarantulas, which causes them to come out of their hiding places, had just begun. “No, children,” Silke sang, “We’re going to leave it for now. Come…” She turned and headed down the path, calling out, “Who can find the Colibri?”
“Colibri?” I said out loud. “Probably has ten heads.” Guinevere had trotted ahead, leaving Pema, who I’ll rename Autumn, my nearest companion. I was grateful. If I was going to save any of these kids, I’d rather it be my own daughter, whose hair shines like the golden leaves in fall. “Dad,” she said, rolling her eyes, “it’s a hummingbird.”
The Colibri, it turns out, was the least of our worries. We had hardly passed it, exiting the zodiacal sea upon a wide avenue of myth and distrust, when a humongous green dragon came around the corner, seething with hunger and screeching with the groan of metal. “Cover your ears! Silke, the sword!” I shouted, but she calmly advised the children and I merely to step to the side of the road. “Come here, children,” she said, “We can watch from over here. Andrew, Sebastian, please step back.”
All eyes were on the massive beast as it came upon us, two stories tall and belching an infernal smoke. Two poor souls, trapped inside, smiled longingly at us through the dragon’s eyes. Bemoaning their own misfortune, no doubt, they were nonetheless cheered by our youth and vigor. Suddenly, one of the dragon’s gnarled legs ensnared a receptacle of ill repute, lifting it high above its head, and downing its contents in one throaty gulp. Hideous. Slamming the empty vessel to the ground, the dragon’s lust now satisfied, it moved on, cranking and screeching down the wide avenue of filth. The two lost souls, incapable of freeing themselves from the dragon’s sorcery, were forced to watch from behind the brute’s eyes as it laid waste to the kingdom. As the dragon sped away, one of the souls reached deep into the fiend’s mind, one last act of volition, pulling the tether that let loose an eerie and blasphemous call from within the depths of the dragon, its only greeting.
“Wow, that was so cool!” yelled Peter.
“Vicious,” I thought.
“Do you see the silly bird, children?” Silke asked. All eyes turned to her. She was right. The dragon gone, calm had returned to the kingdom and, merrily enough, the silly bird, like the gaping sun, was now afoot. “The silly bird is so silly,” said Ayesha, pointing to the painted rock near the side of the road. “I know someone else who is silly,” said Silke, eyeing me. But I girded myself with valor. Not, of course, before spying the emerald trash bin, sparkling with virtue in a sea of sinfulness. The silly bird was indeed afoot.
We passed the rest of the avenue of myth and despair with little more than a scratch, hardly a venial sin. We may have lost one child. But barely had we come upon the river of sorrows when, as the children climbed slowly down the embankment, we suddenly came face to face with an angry buffalo. “Here’s the buffalo, children!” Silke chimed, dropping her eyes to the ground. Foolish mistake. The buffalo, taking her lowered head as a sign of threat, began huffing and snorting. The children’s attention ensnared by impending doom, I looked back to the relative safety of the avenue of myth and despair, discovering, as I had hoped, that the emerald virtue remained hidden from our location along the river bank.
“Silke!” I shouted, locking horns with the terrific beast, who twisted and snorted before me. “I can do it on the way home! The secret!” The children, watching the two of us hoofing for leverage over the rocky ground, smiled with grim fascination. “What is it?!” Guinevere asked, “the secret?!” But I bore all my strength, steering the buffalo’s massive shoulders away from the children. Breaking into a run, I drew the creature’s wrath towards me, leaving passage for Silke and the children to embark upon the river. “I’ll tell you later…Just remind me…the buffalo…” I shouted, my voice trailing into the distance.
I didn’t want to injure the poor creature, who knew not right from wrong, so I led it deep across the valley and over the plains till, tiring of the journey, it finally collapsed in a heap of exhaustion. Approaching the beast with compassion, I offered it some wild oats I had gathered nearby. “Rest,” I said, and it licked the palm of my hand. Bidding it farewell, I made my way back over the fields and valleys, knowing I had forged a new friendship. Coming to the river of sorrows, I crept down the embankment and into the ooze. “Dad, where’d you go?” Autumn of the golden hair asked, when I had caught up with the others. “Oh, I just had to pee.”
Tired from the journey so far, we made our way slowly through the river, thick with the ooze and slime of a thousand sorrows. A heavy fog of melancholy followed us, and it grew eerie and silent. For a moment our hearts bore up and we made good time. Bone Canyon, we knew, lay some distance beyond the opposite shore, and our merry band was eager to arrive in time for victuals.
“Hisssss...” came the sound, somewhere up ahead. “Children, the snake,” cried Silke, and for once I thought she understood the gravity of the moment. I began furiously stroking the river, muscles aching with chivalry. I tried to get between the serpent and the children, but I had made it only halfway up the line when I saw Silke already embroiled in a fierce battle with the legless beast. It had coiled around her arms, so that her golden sword lay naked and useless. Hissing violently, the snake was slowly squeezing the life out of her. “Children, avert your eyes!” I shouted, stroking even faster.
Silke began shaking hysterically. As I came upon the combatants, it appeared I had only seconds to save her. I reached for her golden sword, then struck mightily the fiend’s throat. I was whirling my vorpal blade for another strike, when suddenly everything disappeared and Silke was merely laughing. The White Witch of the Rose. Of course! As if commanded by an unknown power, my bulging muscles slowed and the advancing blade dropped dumbly to my waist. I stood in silence as a ray of sunlight pierced through the fog. I must have been cloaked in some kind of sorcery. Eyeing me shrewdly, the white witch tapped the end of her staff on the rock, and pressed forward. She was followed in turn by each child, who, mimicking the tap of that enchantress, advanced past the snake with but a momentary giggle. I looked at my hands. No golden sword. A mere switch. Casting my eyes through the break in the fog, I caught a glimpse of Bone Canyon over distant hills. Strength alone would not suffice on this journey.
Climbing out of the river of sorrows, we found ourselves drenched in a doleful misery. Several of the children were wailing. “I’m tired of walking,” said one. “Can’t we play here?” said another. “We’ll never make it to Bone Canyon!” cried Guinevere, and I feared she was right.
“Oh, here’s the spider,” Silke trilled, breaking into song to cheer our ailing hearts. The tune was pleasant enough, but the Sisyphean theme rang cold in my chest. The tiny spider had hardly made its way up the water spout before the rain of lament washed it out. Dejection rankled our once merry band, and I was filled for the first time with the horror of doubt. We would never reach the golden shores of Bone Canyon. Guinevere was right. I pitched myself on the bank of the river and wept bitter tears. We should have stayed home. Now our merry band might be eaten, one by one, by some hideous monster, or worse, sold into slavery to some foreign despot. But then, raising my tear-stained cheeks, I spied a flash of gold in the distance. The fog of melancholy was thinning. The sun, the magnificent sun, had come out, and, drying all the rain, the spider had begun to climb up the spout once again.
“Bravo!” I shouted, warmed by the White Witch’s ditty. The sun was now bright on our cheeks and the children seemed heartened for the journey. “Come children,” Silke said, leaving the banks of the river behind, “Let’s see what the owl has to say.”
The owl! Yes, the owl. Thank goodness. Festooned with wisdom, the owl would know precisely where to guide us. Yet the owl, I knew, dwelled among the crooked branches in the forest of consequences. The children followed like innocent ducklings while I, dragging my weary body from the damp soil, rose and took heart.
But hardly had we gone ten feet into the shadowy forest when one of the children shouted, “horny toad!” A horned toad was no match for my legendary strength, even in my weakened state, but the eyes of fate looked kindly upon that chimerical creature that day. Hardly had I drawn the strength of Hercules into my sword arm when I was met with resistance by one of our own band. “No, wait,” said Sebastian, “It only has three legs.” But how many horns? I thought. Rejecting my succor, Sebastian pursued the creature, catching it upon his naked hands. The children, crouching around, were determined to have a look at the paltry beast, surely one of nature’s revolting mistakes. “Those ram’s horns belong on a proper beast,” I said. “Let’s offer it to the owl.”
“No!” shouted Sebastian, who, no doubt stunned by the creature’s own necromancy, released the horned lizard back to the forest floor, where it snuck amongst the vines and branches, surely to produce further chimeras and sickening monstrosities. “Hoo! Hoo! Children, come. Hoo! Hoo!” sang Silke, from deep within the forest, reminding us of the owl. Though I wished to wipe from the face of the earth the abhorrent horny toad, freakish error of nature, there was but little time. I put down my weapon and stalked proudly towards the owl, leaving the horned extravagance for another date with my virtuous steel.
“Who has a question for the owl?” asked the witch. I clambered to the front, rattling my armor. “Just how are we going to get out of here?!” I nearly shouted. But before I could make one word, the smallest child, Lady Laura, asked demurely, “Why are there so many animals?” Good question, but rather - why are there so many hideous beasts?
“The animals can help you learn about the world,” came the wise owl’s response, who, in a curious enigma, spoke with the exact tone and meter of the White Witch. What mystery fills this world!
“Wait, I have one!” said Peter, squeezing his fists together in anticipation. “What’s one-hundred-million, sixty-four thousand plus two-hundred and one?!” Pleased with this impossible riddle, Peter smiled gleefully to his peers. Surely, even the great sphinx could not answer such a profound mystery, let alone the owl. “Papa Joe?” came the owl’s singsong voice. Thrusting aside my everlasting humility, I searched my breast for the one right and lawful answer. “One-hundred-million, sixty-four thousand, two-hundred and one,” I said, as stunned as the cunning Peter at the dazzling majesty of my answer. All eyes turned to the owl for confirmation, who gently nodded his head, and bid us goodbye. Silke tapped the painted stone with her staff, and beckoned us follow.
Having passed through the alchemical gate that morning, we had now passed through the zodiacal sea, encountering the changeling caterpillar and the heinous tarantula hawk. In the wide avenue of myth and despair, we stood witness to a screeching green dragon, wrestled a buffalo, and then descended the river of sorrows. Having fought an enchanted snake, our hearts were succored by the indefatigable spider, and just in time to face the chimerical horned toad. Guided by the wise owl, we were now deep in the forest of consequences, whose shadowy realm gave way to the very door of Bone Canyon, legend of legends, storied graveyard and seat of glory. We had, so I thought, but one beast to pass, and a gentle one at that.
“I’m tired,” said Lady Laura.
“I’m hungry,” whined golden-haired Autumn.
“My backpack’s too heavy,” complained Guinevere, who, flinging it off, promptly dropped it on the ground.
“Look children,” came Silke’s trilling voice, “the tortoise. We’re almost there!”
“Like the tortoise-man!” shouted Andrew. Near Silke’s house lives a jolly old man with a wooden castle pitched on the back of his truck. For his wife he has eleven hens, who do the work of one. We had waved hello as we passed that jesting fellow on our way towards the alchemical gate. Now, face to face with the real tortoise (actually a drawing on a stone), we recalled the playful mirth of the man, who, pitched upon the roof of his shell that morning, tumbled inside by way of a hinged skylight, all for our general amusement.
“Just think,” said the White Witch, “the turtle carries his entire house on his back, and yet he never complains.” Guinevere rolled her eyes, but mightily, aye, she thrust her bag upon her shoulders and commenced.
The shadows of the forest were thinning and we began to see the edge of the wood before us. Cheered by our impending advent upon Bone Canyon, the children raised a lusty cry. The consequences had been few, the feats daring, the valor mighty and righteous. Surely there would be succor for all within this storied kingdom.
“I have to pee,” said Autumn, whose hair flows like the golden river of…
“Wait! Tarantula!” shouted Sebastian.
And with that, like a candle being snuffed, our once merry band dispersed. Fleeing in every direction, the children, filled with terror, knew not that their actions compounded the threat. “Wait children!” I shouted, “We must band together!” The tarantula-hawk had been but a warning. Now, we had come face to face with the eight-legged land-octopus, who’s cruel misdeeds know no bounds. Searching for rosy-cheeked victims, it stalked before the mythic door to Bone Canyon. Bone Canyon, I thought. Suddenly, it all made sense.
“Silke, the sword!” I shouted, but it was in vain. The killer was already upon me, enshrouding first my legs and arms, then my heart and lungs, in ever-coarsening threads of evil and malicious silk. Choking, I could feel death’s cold door opening before my eyes. My own life was nothing to me, but the children…the children! I had failed them. Our once merry band, now broken and dejected, would be picked off one by one, just like me, by the merciless and hoary monster. What was left of us would become but scattered bones amongst the hills and canyons. Worse still, our story would remain forever unwrit, our glory never retold. Neither alive nor dead, our souls would linger over valleys and canyons, fodder for screeching dragons, whose bellies are full of undead souls.
Suddenly, the great doors opened before me. Death was fast becoming my mate. But then, just as suddenly, I felt my arm move, and then a toe. Looking about my body, my once-bound limbs were now lithe and free. The doors before me were not the gates of hell, but at long-last the golden gates of Bone Canyon, legend of legends, storied graveyard and seat of royalty. And there, before me, the merry band was gathered. Silke, the White Witch of the Rose, stood sword in hand. Gleaming and virtuous, she held it up for all to see, and what did I espy there, but the eight-legged land-octopus itself, not dead, but evidently alive and crawling on the supple blade. She had broken the sorcery with one stroke and, transforming her golden blade to an earthen oak, she had dropped the righteous and innocent blade to the canyon floor, whereupon the tarantula, heinous father of crimes and iniquitous misdemeanors, had been not only reduced to her service, but actually pleased to ride upon the back of the very sword that had vanquished its languid powers. The children, even meek Lady Laura, watched curiously as the spider’s eight crooked legs crawled innocently up the sword, not unlike the water spout we had encountered before in song. The sun had come out indeed! The river of sorrows had been banished. The rain of lament would fall no more. The golden doors of Bone Canyon yielded before our voices, and we entered, triumphant, with every creature, great and small, upon our backs.
Crouched in the thick green garbage can, I waited once again for Silke and the children to catch up. They were lingering near the buffalo stone, while I hurriedly prepared my secret. This time I had given clear instructions to follow.
It was now mid-afternoon and the sun was bright overhead. I smiled. It was hot inside the bin, but the beguiling aura of emerald green was some compensation. Waiting for the sound of children’s footsteps, I began to recount the day’s events. The tarantula wasp, the garbage truck, the horny toad and tarantula. Silke had promised to sword fight with the kids, requiring them first to go through a training involving, among other things, a jump rope dragon. Silke’s always talking about dragons and kings and queens, I thought. What a goof. But the kids had eaten it up. We spent the whole day talking about dragon this, dragon that. Even I had joined in, usurping the allegory in a story after lunch. The dragon, who loves mischief, had stolen into the children’s lunches and made their sandwiches taste like dirty shoes, their grapes like steering wheels. Luckily, the fairy that lives in the magic soap (Silke’s euphemism for hand sanitizer) saved the day when she heard the evil dragon, who had morphed into a mosquito, snickering on the side of a nearby rock. The kids roared excitedly when I finished, pleading with me to tell it again tomorrow. What exactly is it that we like about heroes and villains? Or jesters?
Then I heard the patter of little feet.