They were at their grandfather’s house for two months, and these woods were the only form of entertainment he had. This pond was going to save his summer. His sister took one look at the murky, greenish water and told him to stay away from it. She warned him that it was probably full of nasty bacteria. But Michael had never been good at listening to warnings.
The very next day he dived in. It was cool and refreshing and much, much deeper than Michael had thought. Near the edge, he could touch the muddy bottom with his feet, but three paces in, the water was over his head, and the floor dropped down steeply. Michael was a strong swimmer. He always had been. His mother said he was part fish. It was harder than he thought to kick all the way to the bottom, but it was worth it. What he saw there made the rest of his air whoosh out of his body, so that he had to shoot to the surface to breathe.
He was only up for a minute, and then he dove again at top speed. He could see it through the gloom this time as he approached it: a huge stone archway. There was writing around the edges.
Heed the danger, friend.
DO NOT PASS
Turn back before it is too late.
Go home while you can.
Each warning was in a different handwriting, and some looked much older than the others. Slowly, Michael approached the arch. It didn’t look dangerous. He reached out a hand and touched it. Nothing happened. He had half expected an electric shock or something. He considered another trip to the surface to breathe and thin it through. But really, he could see both sides of the arch. The same green water. The same brown muddy bottom. The stone of the arch looked like it had grown straight out of the earth, solid and immovable.
Michael read the warnings again. He shrugged. He had never been good at listening to warnings.
He swam through the arch.
Nothing happened. Michael was deflated. He shot to the surface for air.
The brilliant colors caught his attention first. When he had left, the woods were green and brown, the leaves so thick that the light was dim. Now sunlight showered down and he saw reds, yellows, oranges, purples. Purples? Michael pulled himself out of the water. The nearest tree was small, its bark brown but somehow soft looking. The leaves were yellow and hanging among them were large round purple discs. He reached out and touched one. It was smooth and hard. It looked so much like candy that Michael couldn’t help himself. He knew he shouldn’t. His mother had warned him not to eat things that grow in the woods. You never know when something might be poisonous. But Michael had never been good at listening to warnings.
The purple thing was candy, and it was delicious. Michael was still sucking on it when he realized that the tree trunk had melted a little where he had put his hand while picking the purple candy. He leaned closer and licked it. It was chocolate.
After that, Michael was too busy eating to think about anything else. Only when he had eaten so much that his stomach felt tight and his head dizzy from too much sugar did Michael begin to think of going home. He wasn’t sure how it worked, but this was obviously not the same woods he came from. Somehow the arch had brought him here, so it would take him back again. He swam down and looked at it again. The same arch. The same warnings. This time he swam through from the other side, headed home.
When his head broke the surface, Michael knew at once that it hadn’t worked. He was no longer in the candy forest, but he was definitely not in his grandfather’s woods, either. The trees here were so tall he could barely see the leaves above him. The trunks were smooth and straight like pillars in a cathedral. In fact, the whole place had the still, silent feeling of a church. As Michael climbed out of the water, he noticed that the ground was covered in a thick carpet of leaves. They crunched underfoot, giving off a faint scent that reminded Michael of candles burning and Christmas cookies in the oven. He was dripping wet but didn’t feel cold at all. The air seemed to snuggle around him, warming his skin without making him feel hot. A few steps away was a pile of boulders. Michael sat on the nearest one to think. All thought was surprised out of his head when the rock proved to be softer than the softest pillow. He lounged back on the pile, feeling more comfortable than he ever had in his life. He thought he would just rest here for a minute before swimming back down to the arch. In moments, he was asleep.
When Michael woke up, he felt so rested he thought he could run a marathon. Instead he stared at the pond. Obviously the arch could take him to different places, different worlds he guessed from what he had seen (and tasted and felt). Wonderful worlds. Worlds anyone would want to visit. Why would anyone warn him away from such worlds?
One possible reason presented itself, but Michael ignored it. Of course he wasn’t lost forever. Of course the arch would eventually take him home. There were only so many possible worlds, right? Sooner or later, he would show up in his own. To keep from thinking about this any more, he dived into the water.
Through the arch. Up to the surface. Weeping willows with branches trailing into the water on every side. Some sort of sad music playing off in the distance. Michael dived.
Through the arch. Up to the surface. Rubbery trees swaying in a wind so strong Michael’s hair was whipped in every direction. A strange smell of burning sugar drifted on the wind. Michael dived.
Through the arch. Up to the surface. Night time, no trees, only small round shrubs in every direction glowing with some unearthly light. Michael dived.
Through the arch. Up to the surface. Sheets of rain so thick it was impossible to see the bank of the pond. A fork of lightening. Michael dived.
Through the arch and through the arch and through the arch. World after world after world, none of them familiar. Michael began to feel desperate. All the energy he had gained by sleeping on the pillow rocks was gone, but still his fear spurred him on. His legs and arms felt weak, but he dived and dived and dived again.
Through the arch. Up to the surface. A grey sky. Blackened stumps on every side, smoke still rising in places. A shout, harsh and unintelligible. Pain bursting through his shoulder. The shaft of an arrow sticking out. Michael dived.
Swimming was agony. His right arm was useless. He could see his blood clouding the water around him. The arch down below seemed impossibly far. In desperation he kicked. The next world had to be his own. It would certainly be the last.
Through the arch. Up to the surface. Dim light. Warm air. Familiar trees. Home.
Michael staggered up on the bank and collapsed. Blood seeped from around the arrow, but the pain seemed far away now. The whole world seemed far away.
A shout. A soft touch. His sister’s face, set with worry. A sharp pain. The arrow was gone. Capable hands wrapped his shoulder tightly. A bottle was raised to his lips. Water…and something else. Michael came suddenly wide awake. He was being carried on a stretcher. He couldn’t see who was behind his head, but his sister was carrying his feet.
“I’m so glad you were here,” he whispered. “I don’t think I could have made it home.”
That familiar smile was a little puzzled now. That familiar voice answered, but with words he could not understand. Michael’s heart constricted. Another voice answered from above his head, words in the same strange language but in a voice he recognized. It continued, haltingly in English, “Do not fear.”
That voice. It couldn’t be. Ignoring the pain, Michael twisted to look up. His own face stared back at him in wonder. His own hands carried his stretcher.
In mindless terror, Michael lurched to his feet, stumbling toward the pond with the last of his strength.
The voice that was his and yet not his followed him. “You must not! Your wound!”
Michael had never been good at listening to warnings.