There was still a path under his feet, but it was overgrown with rank grass, and the ground was turning soggy. The air was thick, almost unbreathable. Tall, leggy trees grew sparsely out of a sea of chest-high bushes on either side of the path that stretched as far as he could see. Insects of some sort ratcheted in a continuous roar of sound that filled the air in all directions, muted slightly, perhaps, by the cloud of silent biting insects that surrounded him like a churning fog.
“Aiiieeeee!” Jake yelled and waved his arms, uncharacteristically un-mellow.
Something large splashed nearby. The roar of insects, and the voracious cloud around him, continued without pause or notice.
Jake turned in the direction of the splash. He’d heard of the Giant Caimans that were said to guard the Blue Lady’s secret garden — some kind of prehistoric reptile, they said, bigger than any ordinary alligator or crocodile, fierce, aggressive, and equipped with poisonous fangs. Completely loyal to the Lady and obedient to her voice.
Though he wasn’t fond of the idea of dying in the jaws of such a creature, he was down in this pest-ridden swamp to search for the Blue Lady, and he figured he’d have to face one of the beasts sooner or later. Between the heat and the bugbites, sooner would be much better than later.
The bushes were too thick to see through. He could not even guess where the water lay: one step away, or a hundred.
Jake sighed, turned, and trudged onward. He was already through a quarter of the water in his skin, and had no idea how much further this path went. The adults in the last village he’d been through had turned away when he’d mentioned the Lady, but one of the children had finally set him on this path, and assured him that you could get there in half a day.
It was mid-afternoon when he at last came to the end of the path. The trees had grown tall and dense, and though the sun was still high, he walked in green twilight. The path made a sharp turn, dipped slightly, and then opened into a clearing.
Jake stopped walking, struck still by awe.
The clearing was ringed by the tall trees, which formed a dense canopy overhead that continued to filter the sunlight to a deep green; but the sun cut bright, slanted shafts of golden light through gaps in the canopy, reflecting sparkling light off the mix of dust, flying insects, and humidity in the air. As he watched, faint breezes in the leaves high above caused the shafts of light to dance.
The sound of insects was muted here, and he could at last hear a faint trickle of water: at the center of the clearing stood a ring of carefully-fitted, grouted stones, enclosing a small pool of water fed by an artesian spring that bubbled up from its center, which then overflowed and vanished into the thick mat of mossy growth that covered the floor of the clearing. The stones around the pool were almost hidden by brightly-colored scraps of cloth, shiny man-made metallic objects, woven bundles of sticks decorated with feathers, and old photographs. A cleared path through the offerings allowed access to the pool.
A low mound rose behind the pool, smooth and earth-colored.
Jake cautiously entered the clearing. He saw no movement, save the slow bubbling of the pool. He approached the pool, and tasted the water. It was clean, fresh, and cool, though it had an odd flavor — slightly sweet and sharp, like a fruit or blossom, with a faint hint of not-unpleasant bitterness.
He breathed a sigh of relief. His water was almost gone, despite his attempts to ration it, and he’d been worrying for the last two hours how he would make it back out of this jungle. He drank his fill from the pool, and then filled his water bag.
There was nothing else in the clearing but the pool with its ring of offerings, and the mound. He rose and circled the mound, slowly.
It appeared to be made of clay, something like stucco. It was low, a little more than chest-high to Jake, and perhaps ten feet in diameter. A ring of small holes encircled the mound about halfway up the sides, each overhung with a lip that would keep rainwater from draining into the hole.
On the back side he found a small, round door, painted bright blue.
“Hello!” Jake called. Only the endless insect ratcheting and the faint burbling of the spring answered.
He knocked on the door, and then stood back, respectfully. Nothing happened.
Jake sat down, rolled himself a joint, and considered his options.
This was clearly a local shrine of some sort, and the blue door suggested that the child had been right — this was a shrine to the Blue Lady. But it didn’t seem at all like the Garden he’d been hearing about. He looked up at the canopy, and was surprised to see the shafts of sunlight cutting a shallow angle through the tops of the trees, the day nearly spent. Somehow, the rest of the afternoon had slipped away without his noticing.
Jake didn’t know much about jungles, but he knew he didn’t want to sleep on the open ground — that was just an invitation to become dinner. He felt suddenly certain that the mound was for travelers, exactly like himself. Without much thought, he stood, opened the blue door, and then crouched and wormed his way into the mound, not even thinking about anything that might already be inside. He pulled the door shut behind him.
His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. There was just enough light slipping in through the ring of holes to see that the interior of the mound was clean and featureless, and unoccupied by anyone or anything else. The was a sharp, bitter smell in the air that reminded him briefly of antiseptic from the old world he’d grown up in. Which perhaps explained the lack of denizens: someone maintained this space, kept it clean and clear. His eyes started to droop — it had been a long day.
He was jolted back to awareness by the sound of singing, outside the mound: a woman’s voice, clear and beautiful, singing a sweet melody. He could not make out the words.
There was more light inside the mound now, bright, clear daylight coming through the ring of holes, and he could see that the inside walls were painted in bright colors. A yellow sun hung in a blue sky, surrounded by stars, facing a shining full moon. A mountain rose to one side; blue sea on the other, edged by white sand. A ring of toothy monstrosities surrounded him, frighteningly realistic.
Jake admired the painter’s skill for a moment, then pushed the door open and crawled out.
He stood in the middle of a lawn of short green grass. A cool sea-breeze blew in his face, from across the ocean that spread before him all the way to the horizon, surf rolling in languidly, a bright morning sun already high in a clear blue sky. He turned slowly to face the tall, green mountain that rose behind him.
He saw movement from the corner of his eye, and turned to look. It was a tall woman with raven-dark hair braided tightly in corn-rows and piled high on her head. Her clothing was a simple robe of clean white fabric that draped in folds. The most startling thing about her, of course, was that her skin was blue. Not the mottled purplish blue of a drowning man, or the gray-blue of someone with chronic metal poisoning, but clear, unblemished blue, a little darker than the sky, but lighter than the sea.
Jake went to one knee. “My Lady,” he said.
She laughed, and her voice confirmed that she was the singer he had heard earlier.
“Rise, Jake. None that I allow on my island need bend a knee.”
“So you are real, after all.”
She smiled, and did not answer.
“No, Jake. Your time here is precious, and you should not waste it on unimportant questions. Ask me what you came to ask.”
Now that he’d come to it, Jake found himself suddenly speechless. Tears sprang to his eyes. The Lady’s eyes showed sympathy, and she continued to smile at him.
“Do I have a purpose?” Jake blurted out.
“Yes,” the Lady said.
“Then what is it?” Jake’s voice shook, his face twisted in an agony of pleading and anger.
Her smile faded, replaced by a kind of sadness. “I cannot tell you.”
“Why not? Because that’s for me to discover?” His voice dripped sarcasm.
The Lady’s sad expression did not change. “I cannot tell you, because if I do, the knowledge will prevent you from fulfilling your purpose. I can only say that you have a purpose. And I think I can tell you this much as well: it is an important purpose.”
Jake’s anger broke like a wave against the shore, and rolled away. He sat, suddenly, shoulders drooping.
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
The Lady’s smile returned, and she laughed, lightly. “That question I can answer, Jake. You are supposed to do exactly what you are doing. Travel where you wish to travel. Do what you wish to do. Walk when you are restless, sleep when you are tired, eat when you are hungry. Settle down somewhere when and if it suits you.”
“But how does that…?”
“Shh,” the Lady said, putting her finger to her lips. “It is my turn to ask a question of you.”
Jake braced himself. “Okay.”
“Are you still carrying any Purple Haze?”
Jake blinked. “Um, no. But I have Tangerine Dream.”
“Would you mind sharing?”
Jake stared at her for a full thirty seconds. Then his wits found him, and he reached into his pocket. The Lady sat on the ground next to him while he packed his pipe for her.
“Ahh…” she said, slowly exhaling after taking a deep draught of the fragrant smoke. “Thank you. It’s embarrassing to have to ask. But my visitors have started ‘purifying’ themselves before they come. Empty pockets, empty minds, nothing to share but their ‘spiritual purity.’ It’s a crying shame.”
They sat in companionable silence. Jake’s eyes began to droop.
“Be mellow, Jake,” the Lady said, and kissed him gently on the cheek.
Jake woke, feeling well-rested, with green light filtering through the holes in the mound. He could just make out crude images painted on the inside walls of the structure: a sun, a moon, a seacoast, a mountain. Some kind of toothy creatures. It was far too dark to distinguish colors, almost too dark to see the images at all. He sat up and pushed the door open into the endless insect racket and the soft bubbling of the pool. The light suggested that it was shortly after dawn, but the heat was already building.
Jake drank at the fountain, and then set out on the path back to the world he knew.