A Spirit and a Curse

Submitted into Contest #144 in response to: Start your story with somebody taking a photo.... view prompt

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Fantasy

Julian has seen lots of things in his life, seen things that made others scratch their head. With a camera and hawk-like precision, he took pictures of these things, catching the infinite beauty tied with the landforms.

Today, though, was a special place. Before him stood a landmark that no one could ever quite explain.

Around him was a barren desert. On the trek to this place, his shoes hissed on the cracks of earth, little rocks spurring in his wake. Dust settled into small clouds on the surface, hiding his ankle and shoes in a dim mist. He could still hear and feel the earth beneath him, deprived of water and greenery.

But the place that stood in front of him was the opposite of a desert devoid of life.

It was a pond. Somewhat big, a perfect circle. The waters were shimmering blue, rolling waves like the silk of the dress of a fallen queen. The waves lapped to his feet, gently sloshing against his shoes. Even through the thick fabric, he could feel the bite of cold, like an icy kiss. 

A pond in a desert. That might seem strange enough, but it wasn’t even the strangest part of the place. Sure, glistening waters in a dead zone were startling, but it was what stood in the middle of the pond that was the star, that had scientists grumbling and local folk whispering.

Straight at the heart of the pond stood a tree. Its trunk was thick and sturdy. Julian thought that the color of the trunk was that of aged paper, like it was dipped in fine wine and left out to dry.

Grooves ran up and down the length of the trunk. Some were black and wide, others were a dim white, almost as if the tree had battle scars. It ran the entire length of the tree before vanishing in the leaves and branches.

` But Julian’s breath caught when he looked at the leaves. He had focused his camera lens on those very leaves, shooting at multiple angles, but even with his expertise, his pictures did them no justice.

The leaves were like cuts of emerald on diamond branches. They were aglow in the sun, veins running through them, beams of sunlight shining behind them, making them turn shades of orange and yellow. The branches were pure white, dazzling in the afternoon sun. They were thick and strong, reaching up to the sky, the clouds. The leaves rustled in the wind, making a whispering sound that sent chills down Julian’s neck.

He didn’t care if people thought he was crazy for thinking this. But he fully believed, with all his heart, that this tree was alive.

Of course, he passed middle school, so he knew all plants and animals were living beings. But that wasn’t the case with this tree. He believes that the tree has a conscious. As if it’s aware of everything around it. 

The way the leaves rustled was as if it was whispering. The way the trunk stood was as if its back was straight, ready to face the world. The branches were like arms and hands and fingers, reaching towards him, reaching towards the sky.

It’s as if the branches were praying, praying to the gods who listened. With this thought, Julian shivered and stepped back, his toes immediately warming without the constant lapping of the glass water. 

The wind seemed to form a cocoon around him, trapping him so he could hear its murmurs.

You are not crazy. You speak the truth.

Julian’s mind just froze. And then the wind, the voice, all stopped. He just stood there, camera in shaking hands, as the wind left him alone.

Whenever people visited this place, they never left with a sane mind. His own father had journeyed here to capture the pond and tree’s beauty, and when he came home, there was a crazy gleam in his eyes.

“Jewels,” he had said, clinging to Julian’s shoulder. Julian had been nine at the time, and seeing his father like this set him on edge.

“Those winds… the trees… they whisper, Jewels,” he mumbled, his voice slurred, as if he had drunk numerous bottles of wine. “They whisper ancient knowledge, all you have to do is listen.”

Julian had tried to pry himself from his father’s grip, but he didn’t waver. His father just looked at his son, as if searching if Julian could listen to the whispers.

“When you get older, promise me, Jewels. Promise that you will go there, and you will listen to the whispers. The wind… oh, their knowledge, their sayings,” he had said, drifting off into the living room, muttering to himself, swaying in place.

Nine-year-old Julian had been terrified. Had vowed to himself that he shall never go to that ancient place in his father’s photos.

But now he was here, standing in front of the waters, taking picture upon picture. He still wasn’t sure why he did it.

You are doing it because of your father’s legacy. His last dying wish.

Julian froze again. The winds spoke the truth.

On his deathbed, Julian’s father had clasped his hand, looking at his son with murky eyes.

“You will go to the ancient site. I have a map… in my room. Go, Jewels, go,” he had rasped. 

After those words were uttered, his father turned his head and sighed, the air permanently leaving his body. As if Death had waited for those words, then whisked him away.

We know Death. Cunning man, swift on his wings. He claims those who are old, those with illness. What is your thought, Julian Mare?

“Stop,” Julian whispered, shaking. The water seemed to edge closer to his toes, though he was several feet from the shore. “Please, stop.”

You are worried about becoming like your father. Interesting. Fine, we shall no longer bother you, Julian Mare. But know that with your father’s legacy, your lifeblood belongs to us.

“What do you mean,” Julian said, his voice clipped. This was not a question, but rather a demand.

Long ago, your first ancestors swore an oath to us, this tree, the waters. They said that every male in the family shall visit this site, and in return, we shall protect their life. Death can only claim them when they reach old age.

Julian sank to the ground, his hands in his hair. He was going crazy, just like his father…

Look at the water, Jewels. Go to the glass.

And for some reason, the command struck into his soul. He found his hands pushing off of the ground, his feet lurching towards the waters. And with his torso leaning over the waters, he looked.

And saw a spirit beside him.

Julian didn’t move, couldn’t move. The spirit was made of wisps of smoke, like its whole body was a shadow. And Julian could make out the faint line of a smile.

You are not going crazy, Julian. You are just seeing what every male before you saw.

“Why did my father go insane after visiting this place?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the spirit. He could have sworn it grimaced.

Your father went too far. He swam in the sacred and forbidden waters. As a punishment, we required his sanity. His debt was paid.

And with that, Julian found his body walking backward, away from the waters that seemed to turn black.

It was like the galaxy swirled around the tree. Just pure and endless black spotted with shades of red and purple and blue.

Julian turned, facing oblivion, his ears ringing and mind whirling. And he felt a gentle nudge on the small of his back. As if a child’s hand pushed him away from the waters.

Come back soon, the wind purred as Julian walked away.

Away from this sacred place that held his life in their wispy hands. 





May 07, 2022 01:57

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