Just as Christopher Colombus sailed the ocean blue, Leif Erikson sailed the icy waters, and Lewis and Clark waded those murky rivers, I paddled my way through the creek outside my house with the ambition of a world-class explorer. If Dora had taught me nothing, it was to explore. And so I did.
I had been to many strange places in the woods. Abandoned farms, secret clearings, and quiet passageways that led straight to the side of a blaring highway. Every new place was a notch in my adventure until I had mapped out the entire surrounding area to the woods outside my house. But after seeing the same abandoned house twice, I realized I had outgrown my environment. I was a big fish in a little pond, anxious to broaden my borders. With that in mind, I continued paddling west on my little canoe down the swollen creek. I had a granola bar and my filled water bottle, so I could essentially survive for the next week.
The sun was beginning to set and dinner was settling in my stomach, making me sluggish and my eyes sleepy. Nonetheless, I pressed on, determined to discover something incredible. As the sunset under the trees surrounding me, the water turned all colors of the sky. Before I knew it, the sun had vanished entirely and stars twinkled in the black water below me. I could barely keep my eyes open and my stomach rumbled uncomfortably. Noises in the woods made me uneasy. It seemed that everything out of my sight was watching me, ready to pounce. My eyes darted frantically from shore to shore, watching for predators and monsters. Unfortunately, I started to regret my venture into the wild. I had not anticipated such scary things, such an ominous silence, and the exhaustion that consumed my entire being. I was overwhelmed by such obstacles that I did not even think to overcome them, only run home to safety.
However, my hindsight was very advanced. Canoes only work down a stream. Not up, where I had come from. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I ventured even further, trying to come up with some brilliant plan to get me out of the perpetual creek I was traveling to my doom. The excitement and bravery had melted into misery and fear. Through the sound of owls and crickets, I calmed my breathing and rowed the canoe to the bank of the creek. The water was cold against my feet and hands as I pulled the canoe into the forest with me. I would have to carry it upstream and walk all the way home. I stood there, exhausted, thirsty, scared, and overwhelmed, holding a canoe double my size and my resolve was low. I felt like I was at a crossroads.
But that's the thing about crossroads; there can be four options, forwards, backward, left, and right. I could go down the stream on the canoe, I could go back home upstream, I could stand there in misery or... examine the glowing golden light further in the forest?
I did not give a second thought when I dropped the canoe on the shore and ran towards the light. It seemed like the horizon, always some distance away, never getting closer. When my bones were weary and I was out of breath, I finally leaned against a tree and drank from my water bottle. The light got even brighter until I had to avert my gaze and try to blink out the spots. When my vision came back, everything around me was completely different.
The sun was high in the sky. The trees were at least 10 times the size of the small oaks in the old forest. They were mighty redwoods and evergreens, towering over like skyscrapers. Vibrant flowers dotted the landscape like polka dots. The grass was such a bright green it looked unreal. A rainbow of mushrooms grew out of logs and the huge roots in the ground. The ground was covered with vegetation and roots. And then there were the houses. Clay, round, bright houses built perfectly into the environment they were housed in. The houses seemed part of the forest, not like they took over. The roofs and walls were both different colors, but the colors were shared throughout the little village. Golds, teals, lavenders, oranges, pinks, dark greens, dark reds. It was something out of a fairy tale.
My little brain almost exploded looking at it. I had to rub my eyes to ensure I was seeing everything correctly. But after a reality check, everything was still as unusual and beautiful as before. It was a vivid reality, everything seemed to have a bright and vivid filter over it. Sounds of birds, bugs, and laughter filled the place. Slowly, gripping my water bottle for comfort, I ventured over the roots and into the village. There were people all over. Or... were they people?
They all had impish faces, textured brown skin, like wood, and bright green eyes, like they were pumped filled with chlorophyll. When I stumbled in, dirty and scared, they all paused and stared at me. My heart fell into my stomach. I was terrified they would all go insane, kidnap me, and string me to a tree. Or maybe they would start speaking in some random language that I didn't know and we would both be confused and scared. Or even worse, they would ignore me.
They blinked, the green in their eyes shining like LED lights. Their skin and hair looked so exotic and fantastical. It all seemed so familiar and yet so foreign. I wanted to explore every house and talk to every person, but the more they stared, the less confident I felt.
After an extremely awkward silence, I cleared my throat, “Excuse me. Where am I?”
They all looked at each other, wary of me and my question. Maybe they didn’t speak English… that would make this very difficult. One elder lady stepped forward towards me and looked me straight in the face, her sparkling green irises flashing like beams.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“I, uh,” I felt overwhelmed like they were all analyzing me as some alien species. To them, I suppose I was, “I got lost in the woods… and stumbled here.”
People began to murmur uneasily, their emerald eyes laser-focused on me with analytical fear. The elder did not react. She remained stoic as she stared me down.
“One does not ‘stumble’ into Elphame,” She explained sharply, “It is hidden from humans. So, again, how did you find us?”
I felt sweat beading on my forehead and my throat begin to swell up, “I swear, I was canoeing and got lost trying to get through the woods. There was this light that I followed and I… I just sorta opened my eyes and I was here.”
Everyone was silent, watching me with anticipation and worry. I sunk further into the ground beneath me and felt the hairs on my neck stand up.
“You have to leave,” The elder said with finality, “This instant.”
“Wh-what?” I mumbled, “Why?”
“This ground is sacred,” She hissed, her eyes filled with venom and intensity, “You do not belong here.”
I watched everyone with stubborn curiosity, determined to stay longer. That’s when I really noticed the state of things. Hacking coughs echoed through the forest air like a plague. People lay in cots, weak and weary. Everyone looked so thin, so unhealthy. The color of the houses seemed to drain as I really looked at it. Dust and dirt covered everything, the walls, the roofs, the markets. The green in their eyes looked so dull I could barely see the green anymore. I rubbed my eyes, hoping my vision had gone blurry, but no. This was a reality. My shoulders slumped automatically.
“You guys need help,” I decided.
The elder narrowed her eyes, “Listen, young human, this is not your place. Leave before you make matters worse.”
“Worse?” I repeated, “How did I cause this?”
A younger lady walked up to the elder, who looked too weary and disgusted by me to continue. She placed her hands on the elder’s shoulders and looked at me with a sad smile, “Elphame has been going through a drought and plague. Everyone is sick from the dirty water and all of our food is slowly deteriorating. We believe it is from the human’s taking over the creek just down the forest.”
“What do you mean? Humans took over the creek? Why can’t you just use it anyway?”
The younger lady shook her head while the elder bitterly sat on a tree stump, staring up at the trees above her, “You have to understand, our environments are separate. Surely you noticed. Every time people use the creek, it pollutes our main water source and we lose more and more. We may not have enough for the rest of the week.”
I felt tears well up in my eyes watching the people, so dehydrated and miserable. I had to help. I could feel it in my chest as loud as a bass drum.
“I want to help.”
The younger lady raised an eyebrow. The elder laughed loudly, “Help? Young lady, the only way you can help is to leave us alone.”
“Unfortunately, she may be right,” The younger lady agreed dejectedly, “This is our fight, not that of a young human.”
I pouted, “But I canoe in that creek all the time. I can try to give you ownership of it.”
The young lady’s dull green eyes sparkled brightly, “How would you do that? Is it possible?”
The elder shook her head, “Just a kid. Not capable of transferring a creek into our world. Barely capable of speaking in sentences.”
I felt the insult wash down like fire when she said it. Nonetheless, I watched the younger lady closely for assistance.
“I will bring you to the creek. And maybe it will come back to you, fresh and clean, once you see it in the human world.”
Her eyes sparkled hopefully, “Really? We can try it. There’s nothing left to lose.”
“Then lead the way, young human.”
And so I did. With the knowledge of these people suffering, the forest looked just as dreary as usual. Green grays and tiny spots of light peaking through like flashlights in the dark. The floor was a dark brown so covered in roots it looked evil. I couldn’t tell when it shifted back home, but eventually, I heard the rushing of water and knew we made it. As soon as she saw the rushing water, the lady gasped with excitement and joy. She ran into the water and drank it, scooped it in her hands, and treated it like gold. I smiled and watched, prepared to give it up to those who needed it more.
“You will give this creek to us? To our people instead?” She asked solemnly.
Kicking my canoe away and placing my hand in the water with her, I nodded with a heavyweight in my heart but a lift off my shoulders. Her eyes sparkled as bright green as it had when I first saw them.
“Thank you, young human. You have saved us.”
I closed my eyes and when they opened, the creek and Lady were gone. There was nothing but a clear patch of grass leading through the forest, back home. Looking back, I knew Elphame was not mine to explore. It was not mine to take over and I deserved no credit help. I did the right thing and did not need to be congratulated. That was the last time I had ever “explored” again.