In the woods near my home as a boy, I once found the secret to eternal life. Through the bramble and thickets of tightly clustered trees, up and over the hill that touched the clouds, the hidden pond lay still, sullen and clear beneath the blue sky. If you drink out of it, I told my friends, you’ll live forever.
Doubters all, they laughed and called me a liar. I insisted that it was so, that the moon and the sun conspired to enchant the waters, so that they might lift a person above the rest, to make him a god. One by one, they believed me. People want to believe in whatever they can, whatever makes the world seem so much less brutal. Even at a young age, I understood that.
The walk to the lake wasn’t long once we got to the expanse of forest behind my childhood home, but I filled it with tales of creatures great and terrible, manticores and demons and wendingos and all manner of monsters, making the path that lay before us perilous and wonderful. The forest became something fantastical, majestic in its ominous foreboding.
In our little group, there were four, including me: William, the eldest, the most confident; fat little Timmy, sad, confused, lost; and James, stoic and impenetrable. We were inseparable. Invincible. The day was on our side and so was life. We told ourselves that we stood strong against the fears of the night, against the terrible things that our minds invented. All of us were too young to know that the real terrors were the things that men did to others, to better themselves; we were too young to be anything less than impressed with ourselves.
When we finally came upon the forest, night was falling and the woods were dark and silent. Something cried in the dark, and the sound echoed through the trees. It was impossible to tell where it came from. One of the boys shivered. Undeterred, I found the roughshod footpath and plunged into the dark. Each followed, one by one, with only slight hesitation. Onward we marched: murmurings from the back spoke of being watched, of hearing whispers and seeing movement from the trees. I knew these woods, knew them past the fog slowly rising from the moist earth, covered in pine needles and fallen leaves; beyond the spindly, skeletal remains of trees stretching upwards to reach a forsaken sun hanging loose in that darkening sky. I knew of what followed and what didn’t, or believed I did in my childish arrogance: there was nothing that would stop us, nothing in the gloom to harm us, but only imagination and the fear of the unknown and nothing at all.
The trees began to thin out as we climbed the hill, and the air became light and chill. Not much further, I told the boys behind me. It’s over the rise. They grumbled and followed me, rubbing arms where bare skin touched the night air.
From there, it wasn’t far to the pond. No birds chirped. Few plants grew. The land was full of dirt and pebbles and the trees started again several hundred feet from the water’s edge. If you drink out of it, I said again, you’ll live forever. It was a mantra. The silence around us hit hard, and urged each of us forward. William coughed, finally, and stepped to the pond. Kneeling before the pond, he leaned towards the water, and cupped his hand, bringing the cool liquid to his mouth. He drank deep, the water cloying and cooling from his stomach out.
Rising from the water, mouth dripping, William began to walk forward but faltered, his right leg giving out. He fell forward, arms extended, but was unable to hold himself up. There was a mewling noise that started, and I realized slowly that it was coming from his mouth. The other boys had fled in horror, barely remembering the path we had taken. I stayed and watched until the sound had stopped, until he had stopped twitching and his mouth had stopped foaming.
By then, it was completely dark out. I slowly walked home and tried to forget what I had done.