To anybody of an even slightly imaginative or otherworldly bent, perhaps the least enchanting, least picturesque time of the year in Santa Piedra.
September in Santa Piedra is intensely normal. Everything is out in the open. The light is clear. The air is free of swirling mists. The sun shines bravely from morning till night, its yellow beams splintering off the great Rock and sparkling over the wave-tips of the Inlet. The shops along Front Street stand neatly in a row, brightly colored, sharply outlined, undeniably real in the afternoon glare. The sky is blue, the beach is white, the cliffside caves lie open to the probing fingers of the sunlight. Gone are the shadows and secrets that lurked beneath the fogs of spring and summer.
Morgan felt all of this keenly as he came slogging through the shallow surf at the foot of La Punta Lira, a long blue bundle tucked tightly under his right arm. Somehow he knew—he could smell it in the air and taste it on his tongue—that the magic of May and June had departed with the mists. He had no idea how to get it back, and he wasn’t sure he could make his plan work without it. But he was convinced he had to try.
Pausing in the ankle-deep water, he shoved a strand of straw-colored hair out of his eyes and squinted up at the black hole gaping down at him from the base of the cliff. He could feel his heart thumping beneath his ribs. He could taste the salt of his own sweat mingling with the salt of the damp sea air. Rubbing his nose with a briny knuckle, he glanced back through the slanting sunlight at the amber glow lying upon the town on the far side of the bay. Then, tightening his grip on the blue bundle, he marched up over the strand, his red tennis shoes squelching with sea water as he went.
She knows something about my father, he said to himself as the pebbles crunched noisily beneath his feet. ‘He was taken.’ And she knows where.
Morgan, of course, had never been of a particularly otherworldly turn of mind. For him, September had always been a season of discontent chiefly because school was in session again. School still played a big part in the shaping of his mood. But in another way things were different this year. This year he was looking at his situation from an altered point of view. It’s hard not to be otherworldly when you’ve had a glimpse of another world.
Trudging up to the mouth of the cave, he stooped down and peered inside. Yes. This was the place. La Cueva de los Manos, the Cave of the Hands—his best friend Eny’s secret retreat, her private “laughing place,” her home away from home. He knew it by the ancient painting on the inner wall, the work of artists who had plied their trade four thousand years before his time: a cloud of ruddy hand-prints pressed upon the dark gray stone in rust-red ochre—hundreds of human hands reaching towards the cavern ceiling with long, thin fingers like tongues of living flame.
Eny had actually been to that other world. By her own account, she had entered it through an opening at the back side of this very cave. Descending through tendrils and coils of light—or so the story went—she had found her way into a marvelous land under the ground where she had lived with dwarves, encountered giants, sojourned among fairy folk, and fled from a dark enchantress.
As for Morgan, he believed it. Practical and worldly as he was, he could no longer doubt that what she said was true. He had, after all, seen the giants himself. Quite apart from his own plans and purposes, he had been caught up in a whirlwind of enchantments and paranormal adventures. He, too, had played a role in the unfolding of uncanny events. And so, for him, blind unbelief was not an option.
Standing there at the mouth the cave, he cast his mind back over the things he had witnessed in the time of the summer mists. Angels on the stairway and flying ships in the air. The catastrophic battle for Lia Fail, the fabled Stone of Destiny. The fall of the tower of St. Halistan’s church. The seizure and abduction of the Stone. Morgan knew that the strange woman who called herself Madame Medea had taken it. He knew that she had fled with it into the depths of that other world, a place Eny called the Sidhe. It was to find a way into that world and to hunt down that inscrutable woman that he had come to this hole in the cliff at the edge of the western sea. This, he believed, was his destiny. And he was determined to fulfill it.
She knows something about my father, he muttered again as he ducked inside the cave and stood on the threshold, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the light. When he could see clearly, he cast his gaze from one side of the chamber to the other, carefully scanning the cavern walls. No opening was discernible.
Hoisting up his bundle, he stepped to the face of the rock and pressed his fingertips against the fingers of the painted hands. The moment he touched them he felt a tingle like an electric charge run up his spine. The hair stood up on the back of his neck. Now we’re getting somewhere! he thought.
Without breaking the connection between his skin and the cool, damp surface of the rock, he followed the wall back into the furthest corner of the cavern. At length he came to a place where the dripping ceiling sloped down to meet the floor in a hollow space behind two squat boulders. A spark of recognition flashed through his brain.
Yes, he thought, recounting the details of Eny’s narrative for the hundredth time. This has to be the spot where she found the tunnel of light. It fits the description exactly! But whatever Eny’s experience may have been on that spring day so long ago, he could discover no trace of any such passage now.
Slumping against the wall, he passed a weary hand over his forehead. If only Eny were here now! She could explain the next step. He was sure she would be able to show him the way. But Eny, too, was gone. Gone with the enchantment. Gone with Lia Fail. Gone with the ever-elusive mystery of summer’s shrouding fogs.
Well, then. He’d just have to try another tack. He certainly wasn’t going to give up now. This dead-end was not going to stop him—not if he had anything to say about it. Experience had taught him better. That’s why, keenly mindful of the many times his hopes and dreams had fallen flat, he’d come armed with a backup strategy. He had one more trick up his sleeve, a plan he’d been revolving in his mind all summer long. He’d thought about it long and hard, but it had taken him until now to drum up the courage to put it to the test.
(To be continued…)