The little boy with the black hair ran about the campsite in his Superman cape.
The boy jumped from a rock, rolling in the dirt.
“Pow! Pow! Look mommy, look!”
But Mommy didn’t look. Mommy was trying to start the camp stove, her face lined with frustration.
“Jon! I told you this clicker doesn’t work!”
“It works!” the father replied, his voice tinted with frustration.
“Then you come do it!” replied the boy’s mother.
Jon grunted, he was bent over a smoking fire pit. The wood was damp and refused to light. He muttered profanities and said, “Paul, help your mother!”
Paul, the boy’s twelve-year-old brother, sat staring at his iPad, shouts and gunshots rang out from the screen.
“Just a minute.”
“Not just a minute. Help her now. What, do you think you’re at the goddamn movie theater with the other moviegoers and you’re somehow going to miss the important part?”
“But I’m at the GOOD part.”
“It’s fine,” said the mother.
“No, it’s not goddamn fine, Sara,” said the man.
Jon gave his son a look.
The boy slammed his screen down on the table and dragged his feet over to the camp stove.
After clicking on the button for a few moments, the boy said, “Oh! I see what’s wrong with it!… It’s BROKEN just like mom said.”
He stomped back to his movie and pressed play.
The little boy’s fifteen-year-old sister lay rocking in a hammock, her phone stretched out in front of her.
“I told you this was a dumb idea,” said the girl, her eyes rolling. “You wouldn’t even let me bring my makeup and there is totally no reception up here. I told my friends I would call them, and I can’t even do that.”
A look of fury overtook her mother’s face quickly followed by defeat. The woman’s face sunk and quietly she muttered, “I’m done. I’m going for a walk.”
“Jeez Sara, fine! I’ll come look at it,” said the husband.
“Mommy, watch! Watch me be Superman!”
The woman’s eyes were on the ground as she wandered off into the forest.
The father went to the camp stove and began to tinker, trying to make it light. The teenage girl went back to her phone. The older boy stared at his screen.
Only the little boy watched as his mother wandered past the trees, losing sight of her deep green sweatshirt.
“Mommy, wait!” called the little boy, chasing after her.
The trees were thick and dark and he could not see her. As he turned around, he could no longer see the campsite. He could not see his daddy or his brother or his sister.
The forest began to talk around him; the chattering of squirrels, the squeak of mice, birds cawing, trees rustling.
And then the little boy heard a cry; his mother.
“Mommy?” he said. “Mommy?”
Her voice echoed around him, layered and overlapping.
“Help! Someone please help me!”
He continued to walk forward, seeing a dark hole hidden within the trees.
As he came closer, her voice refracted out at him, loud and close; bouncing from the entrance of a cave.
“Oh, Xander, is that you? Go and get your daddy”
The boy didn’t know where to find his daddy, and so he walked into the darkness of the cavern, looking for his mommy.
The space was dark but the boy could see a glimmer of yellow light far in the back corner.
“Go back, Xander!”
The boy continued to move forward. The cavern continued to get brighter. Suddenly and without warning, the boy felt the earth give way beneath him.
He felt himself falling and screaming.
Down and down the boy fell, tumbling head over feet. His scream only lasted for a few short moments as he ran out of breath. He could feel his Superman cape flapping around him and he thought, I’m Superman! And Superman can fly!
He stretched his arms out which stabilized his little body. The cape flew up behind him. He turned his hands into fists, as he had seen the superhero do in the movies.
“I coming to rescue you, Mommy,” he called out.
He was not sure how long he flew, but the glow around him became brighter and he saw the crystalline shapes of the walls. The air pressure became stronger and his ears adjusted, popping as he fell.
Finally, he began to slow, as if the pressure below him was simply too great and was becoming a cushion.
He landed in a soft growth of golden plants with a thud, his air knocked out of him and a sharp pain in his knee.
When he could catch his breath, the little boy let out a wail.
“Oh, my baby, my baby…”
His mother, Sara, drug herself across the floor to the child and struggled to sit, gasping as she tried to roll over onto her bottom, her ankle lay at an odd angle and there were abrasions on her hands and face.
“Are you okay, oh Xander, are you okay? Speak to me.”
The little boy wept and said, “I hurt my elbow, mommy. It hurts.”
She carefully and delicately cradled him into her lap.
“Let’s see,” she said and he stuck out his little arm. “Oh, it looks like you scraped it. But its only bleeding a little bit. Can I kiss it?”
The little boy nodded his head.
She kissed his wound and said, “Is that the only thing that hurts?”
Again, he nodded.
“Well, I think you are very lucky then. That was a very long fall.”
They were sitting in a large open cathedral space within the cavern. There were plants, thick and golden, growing along the floor. A stream meandered along a naturally carved trough, the edges striped with crystalline minerals. Along the edges of the space were sharper plants with tall orange flowers on single spikes. What drew the boy’s attention though was the tree.
A tree larger than any the boy had ever seen grew in the center of the cathedral space. Its bark glowed a deep golden light, its roots stretched out to every wall. Its leaves were shaped like fans and moved as if a gentle wind filled the space. The leaves and branches stretched up to the roof of the cathedral and even beyond, into darkness.
But there were also bones, bones along the walls and in every nook and cranny. There were animal bones and human bones. There were ancient books, a broken yardstick, pieces of toys, a canvas pack, all laying along the edge near where they had landed.
“Mommy, I came to rescue you,” said the boy.
“I know, Xander, but I told you to go get daddy.”
“I didn’t know where daddy went. Everything was dark.”
“It’s okay, baby.”
Sara hugged him and began to rock him, humming softly. The time passed.
Finally, the little boy said, “Mommy, I thirsty.”
“I know. I am too.”
She looked over at the water flowing through the cavernous space.
“Can we drink from the water, mommy?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, looking at the bones around the walls. “I’m afraid it might make us sick.”
“But mommy, I so thirsty!”
“Xander, I hurt my ankle.”
“You have a boo-boo?”
“I do have a boo-boo, and I don’t think I can get to the water. But I don’t want you to drink first. I think, if we are going to drink, we need to drink together.”
The mother looked at her little boy. If the water was going to make them sick, if it would kill them, she didn’t want him to watch her die and to be left alone down here, afraid. She also didn’t want to watch her child die.
“Xander, over against the wall, I see an old backpack. Do you see it?”
The boy nodded his head.
“I want you to go and bring it here. Can you do that?”
Again the boy nodded his head.
She hugged him, and as he climbed out of her lap, she again gasped in pain.
The boy stepped carefully through the deep cushion of plants and then began tiptoeing through the litter of bones. As he reached the pack, he bent over and suddenly stood up again in surprise.
“Mommy! There’s a cup over her!”
“That’s so good, baby! Bring it here too.”
The boy slipped his arm through the strap on the bag. It was old canvas and seemed flat and empty. He picked up a silver tin mug in the other hand and began to make his way back to his mother, over the bones and through the thick soft plants.
Sara took the pack and laid it next to them, and then took the mug. It was dusty but did not appear damaged, there was no rust or decay. She wiped it with her green sweatshirt.
“When you go to the stream, I don’t want you to drink it right away. I want you to tell me what the water looks like first.”
The boy made his way over to the stream and sat on the edge.
“What color is the water?”
“It’s see though, like a swimming pool,” he said.
“Good. Do you see any plants or fish in it?”
“No, mommy, it’s just see though. And it’s running really fast.”
“Okay, I want you to lay on your tummy, so only your hands can go in the water. I don’t want you to fall in, okay?”
The boy laid on his tummy and stretched his arms into the water.
“I want you to stick the cup under the running water. We have to make sure the cup is clean. I want you to hold it tight and shake it in the water.”
“The water is so cold, mommy!”
“You can take your hands out when you need to.”
“No, it feels good.”
The mother smiled to herself, despite the torture within her ankle.
“Okay, that should be good enough. Now, you are going to fill the cup with water. Set it down next to you, away from the stream, and very carefully get up.”
The little boy did as he was told, rolling over and sitting up. He lifted the cup carefully and cautiously walked it over to his mother.
Sara took it in both of her hands. The water was clear and sparkling, reflecting the golden light of the tree.
“I know you are thirsty, but I’m going to take a little drink of it first, just to be sure that it tastes okay.”
The little boy nodded and watched her hopefully as she took the tiniest of sips.
The water had a slight mineral taste but it was cold and refreshing and she found her body craving it. She desperately wanted more. First though, she allowed her son to drink.
The boy was cautious at first, but as soon as the sweet water touched his lips, he could not help him himself, he drank the cup entirely.
“I sorry mommy, it tasted so yummy. I couldn’t stop. But I go get you more!”
He seemed to be brighter somehow, a glow had returned to his dirty cheeks. He bounced as he walked to the stream and confidently scooped up more water without laying down or even sitting.
“Be careful!” his mother called.
“I am!” he called back, carrying the water with confidence and agility.
Her mouth was watering for it, her body crying for it.
When the cold tin touched her lips, she quickly drank the contents. Her body wanted more, needed more, and as the little boy ran back to the underground river, she felt her anxiety relax. Her fractured ankle began to tingle, the pain softening.
The little boy drank a full mug at the streams edge before bringing back the mug for his mother. She drank deeply.
Her ankle began to itch, but the swelling was going down and the pain was fading.
“My elbow’s itchy,” said the little boy and he rubbed it with his other hand.
Sara realized the scratches on her hands and face were itching as well, but it was mild compared to her ankle and so she hadn’t noticed.
“I think the water is making our boo-boos better,” she said to her son.
The scratches and abrasions still stood out against their skin, but they were not such a bright red as they had been.
“My ankle is feeling better, and I think I might be able to walk.”
The boy helped his mother as she worked to stand. While it was tender, like a bad sprain, the foot no longer stood out at the wrong angle.
“Yay!” said the little boy. “I told you I came to rescue you! I bet all those other bones over there didn’t have a Superman.”
Sara had hoped her son hadn’t recognized the bones for what they were, had wanted to shield him simply by ignoring them.
“I bet you’re right,” she said. “I bet they couldn’t get to the water, or maybe they were afraid to drink it.”
“But we’re better now, aren’t we?”
She thought about her words carefully.
“Well, I think the water helped, but we have to figure out how to get out of here. The water is good, but we can’t live down here forever, baby.”
“I know how to get out! We just climb the tree.”
Sara looked up at the golden tree, pulsating with light. It disappeared into the darkness of the ceiling.
“That’s a very tall tree,” she said.
“It’s like a ladder,” the boy said.
She saw that he was right. The branches started low and seemed to wrap like steps up the trunk.
“But we don’t know if there’s an exit at the top,” said Sara.
“There is!” the boy said with confidence.
“How do you know?”
She couldn’t help but smile. He suddenly seemed much more grown up than her little boy at the camp site.
“The river told me, when I was drinking the water.”
Sara was taken aback, but did not want to show her surprise, and so she asked, “Did it tell you anything else?”
“It said the spiky plant would help us too, that it was medicine.”
Sara had seen the plants, lined up against the edges of the cavern and growing at the base of the tree.
“Let’s go look,” she said and felt a sudden possibility, a sudden hope.
The plants had dense angular leaves and reminded Sara of the shape of an aloe vera plant. The leaves themselves were a rich amber color and light flowed like blood pulsing beneath the surface. A single bright orange flower grew in a single stalk from each plant.
Sara thought about aloe, and how the liquid inside its leaves were healing to the skin and often considered healing internally as well.
“The plant seems alive,” she said, and as she did, the stalk leaned down, the flower caressed her hand. “I can’t just break off its leaf, what if I hurt it?”
Sara wasn’t really talking to her son, and she wasn’t talking to the plant; she was simply talking out loud to herself, trying to figure out what to do.
As she said these words, the flower again seemed to bow to her, and then one of its leaves bent until it snapped off at its base.
“Oh! Thank you!” said Sarah.
Xander began to pet the plant, as if it were a companion animal.
Sarah looked at the leaf, thick and dripping at it’s base. Some of the gel ran over her hands and as it did, the abrasions and scratches began to heal.
“Xander! Give me your elbow.”
The boy stuck out his arm and his mother smeared the gel over it.
“It’s not itchy anymore!” said the boy.
“And look, the scratches are healing!”
“Let me put it on your face, mommy.”
Sara hadn’t realized, other than the itchy skin, how she must look to her small son. He began rubbing the gel across her forehead and cheeks and nose.
“That’s better, mommy. You had a lot of blood on your face.”
Her ankle still itched terribly, and so, Sara began to rub the gel into her skin and her foot. She hadn’t noticed the deep bruising before but as the plant’s medicine soaked into her skin, the bruises faded and the itching disappeared.
“Mommy, can we taste it?”
As the boy asked, another leaf broke off a nearby plant.
“I think the plant wants us too,” she said. “Thank you, all of you, for helping us.”
The flowers all seemed to nod at them in varying degrees.
The boy put the broken leaf to his mouth and began to suck on the gel. Another plant broke a leaf off near Sara and she also began to suck on the plant’s medicine.
“It tastes like food, mommy. It makes me feel strong, like Superman!”
Sara could feel the energy in her muscles, could feel the strength he spoke of. She looked at the tall tree and it seemed not only possible, but easy to climb the ladder of its branches.
“Are you ready to climb, mommy?” asked Xander.
“Almost,” said his mother.
Not only could she walk now, she could run.
Sara ran back to the canvas pack and looked inside; it was empty. She returned to the wall where the various broken toys and books and bones sat. She looked if there might be anything that could help them.
Sitting back, underneath the broken yardstick, she saw a thermos, still intact with its lid. She also found a journal and when she opened it, she found drawings of all the plants in the cave with notes and descriptions.
The tree had been much smaller whenever this journal had been written, it did not reach the ceiling of the cathedral cave as it did now.
She also found an old twisting bundle of rope.
She put the journal and the rope into the backpack and took the thermos to the crystalline stream. She washed it well, filling it with fresh water, and returned to her son.
She found him sitting at the base of the tree with three flower plant babies, they had only a few tiny leaves and defined roots that they walked on like legs. They were rubbing against his hands like puppies. He was giggling and playing with them.
“Can they come home with us?” Xander asked.
Sara was unsure, taken aback.
“Where did you get those?”
“They followed me!”
The boy’s mother looked around at the plants.
“We can’t take the pups from the mothers,” she said, but as she did the flowers again began to bow and move.
“They want us to take their medicine outside the cave!” said the boy. “I hear them whispering. It’s what they want.”
Again she looked carefully at the flowers.
“Are you sure this is what you want?”
The was a rustling amongst the plants and she heard what sounded like whispers.
“I promise to take care of them, then. Thank you, friends.”
“Here, mommy! We can wrap them in my Superman cape!”
They put the plant pups into a front pocket of the canvas pack, wrapping them gently in his cape.
She wrapped the rope around her son’s waist and then, allowing several feet of length, she tied it around her waist as well.
“Mom! Why do I have to have a rope around my waist?”
She could hear the teenage whine the boy would someday have and was grateful knowing that he would make it to his teenage years.
“It’s only a precaution, baby. I’m going to let you climb first and I will be right behind you. If you slip, the rope won’t let you fall too far.”
“I won’t slip!” he said, and then thought it over. “I’m Superman. I came to save you. I guess if you slip, then the rope won’t let you fall too far.”
Sara smiled and placed her hand on the glowing trunk of the tree. As she did, the lowest branch seemed to bend down for them. She looked at the golden fan shaped leaves.
“It looks like its in the Ginkgo Biloba family.”
“What’s a Gin-Ko Bill-Oh-Buh?”
“They are a tree from China, originally, and they have been used for medicine.”
“See, mommy, this is a good place.”
“It is a good place,” she said.
The little boy began to climb the branches with his mother close behind, the rope allowing her the security of knowing that the boy would not fall far should he slip. But she didn’t need to worry. The tree bent its branches, allowing them to step higher and higher through the cave while providing them branches to hold on to.
The river and the beautiful living plants began to disappear in the distance, becoming memories below the leaves. The tree continued to glow but the space became darker as they moved higher. The branches became thinner, and while the mother and her son continued to be supported, the branches bent more deeply.
“I think I see it, mommy! I see an opening and the sky looks purple and pink!”
Soon, Sara saw it too; the sun appeared to be setting amongst the forest trees. The opening was narrow and she hoped her shoulders and hips could squeeze through the space. The tree extended about four feet from the hole and while the branches here were fragile, they seemed to lift them the final distance.
Xander crawled from the hole in the earth first and reached his little arm down to help his mother. She handed the canvas pack out to him first.
“Be careful with them,” she said. “We don’t want to squish the babies.”
The boy took the pack carefully and laid it next to him on the forest floor. Then Sara squeezed her way through and found herself laying beneath the trees.
She felt a tap on her foot and saw that the top of the glowing tree was trying to get her attention.
“Look, mommy! The tree is giving us something!”
A branch stuck up from the deep hole and placed something in the boy’s hand.
“What is it?” asked his mother.
He held it up or her to see.
Between his fingers, around the size of a golf ball, was a single round golden seed.
“Can we plant it when we get home and see if it grows?” asked the boy.
“Yes,” and she turned to the tree, “ and I promise we will take good care of your baby. Thank you for saving mine.”
Together, hand in hand, they walked back to their campsite; the boy with unlimited treasure carried in the pack on his back, his superman cape protecting souls he’d already grown to love.
As they arrived at their site, they saw that the boy’s father had given up on the camp stove and was sitting in front of a well built fire, dozing with marshmallows and chocolate sitting at his side. The teenage girl was still on her phone. The older brother was still watching a movie.
And nobody ever seemed to know they had been missing.
This Week’s Prompt
Week 20 – A young child makes a discovery
Include the words: Superman, ginkgo biloba, cavern, clicker, aloe, moviegoer, stretch, fury, yardstick, makeup
And this week we had another writer join us in the prompt! Welcome A. D. Reece! You can find her version of this prompt here.
When my niece and nephew were little, much littler than they are now, my niece said something along the lines of, “I’m Batman!”
My nephew quickly responded, “You’re not batman, you’re batGIRL.”
To which she responded, “I not a BAD girl, I a Good girl.”
I was reminded of this as I imagined little Xander in the story running around as a superhero, connecting his identity to Superman. I didn’t plan on Superman being a running theme throughout the story, but realized he could take the role of saving his mom, and that was where my story began to form.
The words this week had me in a bit of a tailspin. I could not figure out how to use them together in a cohesive story. Superman,… ginkgo biloba,… moviegoer,… clicker? It just didn’t lend to a story I wanted to write.
However, once I imagined them camping (and how camping in today’s world of technology is not what it once was), I could see the mom’s frustration. I could see the little boy who just wanted to be noticed. The word “cavern” gave me a place for the story to develop, and the gingko biloba tree growing in the cave gave me a visual anchor to the story. The other words just had to find their place.
As I imagined the boy falling through the cave, I was inspired by the world of Alice in Wonderland. This allowed me to imagine a world of fantasy deep underground, a land with living flowers and healing streams.
I grew up camping. Perhaps it was the time period (late 70’s/early 80’s) with parents who had grown up as teens in the 60’s. Perhaps it was our community of lower to middle class families, where camping was an affordable option over higher priced vacations. We didn’t have all the fancy equipment. We had tents and sleeping bags, we played cards at the picnic table.
I don’t remember cook stoves–although I’m sure we had some option other than the fire pit–but I do remember food wrapped in tin foil and buried in the coals, I remember s’mores over the flames. I loved that my parents bought the really sugary cereal in the tiny boxes because you could cut them, fold open the flaps, and have your own little bowl. (We never got that type of cereal at home, and so camping was a special treat.)
I remember trips with friends and our tiny church renting out spaces so that we could all camp together; the kids crossing thick logs over rivers, playing in the trees, singing around the fire at night.
My experiences growing up camping are probably a big part of why I love the outdoors so very much.
When I got married and had our daughter, we camped some, but my bones protested nights in sleeping bags on the ground. Even layers of pillows and mattresses couldn’t take the pain from my joints. I’ve noticed “camping” has become fancier with all the needed comforts, with the technology. (Although a mattress and a bathroom are delightful comforts that I never considered as a child.)
Camping seems harder these days, the planning seems more intense, the discomfort more overwhelming. Perhaps, in part, my memories are so fond because I just got to be a kid without responsibility, playing with my cousins and sister and friends.
As I decided I wanted the mother and her son stuck in the cave, I knew that I wanted them to find some sort of treasure, but not in the traditional sense. The idea of the backpack being full of money or jewels seemed cliche. Pirate treasure and booby traps were too “Goonies” and didn’t fit the mother-son relationship of the story.
I couldn’t quite figure out what the treasure would be. I knew they would find healing in the cave, but would it be wrong to remove the healing elements? How much water could they take? What about plants?
One of my closest and most wonderful friends is a folk herbalist and we have been deep in conversation lately about Mugwort. I’ve been working to establish an understanding and a relationship with the plant. I dream of growing a magical garden like she has. My friend, Ivanna, shows such love and reverence for her plants, I realized that I wanted to cultivate some of the same for my characters. (You can find a link to her website and offerings here, or in the links below.)
I didn’t want them to just take from the plants, I wanted through their kindness, that the medicine would be given freely. I did not want them to just take (as is so often the case of humanity). I realized, the treasure was to bring these medicinal plants to the surface, to care for them and nurture them and allow them to grow children of their own.
This allowed my characters to really come to the surface with a treasure beyond money, something that connects them to the Earth and their experience.
A last note; I’ve always loved caves. I grew up visiting Crystal Caverns in Sequoia & Kings National park. I’ve repelled in Moaning Caverns near Columbia in California and have taken several journeys into Black Chasm near Placerville, California. In Alabama, we had the opportunity to visit DeSoto Caverns, and in Ohio, we got visit Ohio Caverns. In Krakow, Poland, we visited Wawel Hill where the Smok Wawelski (the Wawel Dragon) lives. And in Germany we visited sandstone caves, The Schlossberghöhlen in Homburg, that were used as hiding places during war and are now used to help children with breathing problems, as the minerals help to open the lungs. Caves, for me, are not frightening or unknown, they allow me a sense of our history, of humanity and art. There are the fundamental starting place of life, the womb of Mother Earth.
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Next Week’s Prompt
Week 21 – High school hierarchy
Include the words: pyramid, cowboy hat, amateurish, angle, ripple, cheese, jersey, blister, odyssey, reorder