There once was a boy named Sal who lived in the woods with his father. They lived in a small wooden cabin that sat beneath some cedar trees, and alongside their home was a creek. The Chippany Creek, it was called.
Their cabin was tucked away from the road that passed through the forest and led into the village. On most days, travelers on the road could see tufts of smoke puffing out from the chimney and rising lazily above the trees, or hear the clever whistling of a man between the thunderous cracks of wood being split by an axe. It was a pleasant place. This home, this wood, and this creek supplied all they wanted in life, along with each other’s company, of course.
Sal’s father was always teaching him different things, like how to tie a knot in securing a fishing hook, how to stack wood in a fire so it breathes and burns into a red hot bed of coals, or how to identify which mushrooms were good and healthy and which were poisonous.
One particular day, Sal’s lesson centered on climbing. The lesson involved a tree. A big tree. Giant. They had walked for some time to reach it, deep into the woods where the giant fir trees grew. And Sal’s father had chosen the largest.
“Sal, climbing is about rising above your current situation. Sometimes, down on the ground, you can get lost. You lose the sense of where you really are because all you can see is what’s right around you. When you’re lost, sometimes all you need is a good climb to figure out where you are. Plus, sometimes there’s treasure at the top,” he said with a smile.
“Yeah, I guess,” Sal said, glancing upwards.
“It’s important, Sal. And you’ll do fine. So let’s get started.” He pushed his way in among the heavy branches and needles, grabbed a branch, and swung himself up. “Come on up, Sal!” he shouted.
Sal watched his father climb higher and higher up the tree. He felt dizzy.
“It’s okay,” he said. “You can do this.”
Sal didn’t like climbing. He didn’t like heights. But his father was a stubborn teacher, so he pushed aside the thick branches at the bottom and climbed up into the tree. Sap stuck to his fingers like syrup. Needles poked him. But up he went, branch after branch, climbing the colossal tree. Once, the branch he stepped on snapped, and he almost fell. His hands clung hard as his feet dangled and kicked about in a frenzy until they found another branch to steady themselves on.
His heart pounded and his stomach rolled. His vision blurred. He tried to slow his breathing and calm himself down, but he couldn’t. Everything was too fast. The ground, so far down. He was panicking. When suddenly, something fluttered by and captured his attention. It was an orange butterfly, with black markings, unlike anything he’d seen before. It landed gently on the branch his hands clutched and sat for a moment. Sal watched it, and as he did, his breathing settled, his heart slowed, and his vision became clear. He calmed down. And then, off it flew.
“You all right?” His father’s voice bellowed from above.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Sal shouted. “But Dad, I want to go down now. I want to get out of the tree.”
“Just a little higher, Sal. You’re almost there! And you’re going to want to see this.”
Sal breathed heavily. “Dad, I don’t think I can. I want to go back down.” He was frozen in place. The tree rustled as his father climbed down.
“Sal, it’s okay. There’s something up here I want you to see. It doesn’t have to be today, but someday, you need to do this. You need to be able to work through this fear.”
“Dad, I want to go back down,” he said. His father sighed, looking out at the forest around them. They were close to the top.
“All right, Sal. Let’s go back down.” He held out his hand. Sal looked at his father’s hand and then up into his eyes. He sighed, let go of the branch, and grabbed his father’s hand.
It wasn’t long after this, maybe a few weeks, that Sal’s father grew sick. Just a slight fever at first, but then it turned severe. For days, Sal’s father couldn’t work. He couldn’t get out of bed. He just groaned and laid there restless all day. Sal worried about his father.
A couple of weeks passed by, and still Sal’s father lay sick. At night Sal watched him struggle to sleep, writhing on his bed, beads of sweat on his face. He was in pain, and Sal knew he needed help. He needed medicine. So Sal went to the cupboard and pulled out their stash of savings. It wasn’t much, but hopefully it would be enough.
In the morning, while it was still dark, Sal set out for the village. The forest they lived in bordered on the edge of the town, and the journey in only took a couple of hours. Sal’s father took him often on trips to buy special foods and supplies. But Sal had never went alone before.
By the time he arrived at the edge of the town, the day was just beginning. The sun had crept up over the horizon and was rising into the bluing sky. Even in the early morning, the town was alive. The market was in full operation, as farmers and merchants displayed their wares in the street. Sal walked in among the bunches of people, and in the market he saw sweet jars of golden honey, laid out in stacks. There were fresh cut flowers, grouped together in beautiful bouquets of red and yellow, purple and white. And one place was even flipping and selling thin pancakes, with hot berries tucked on the inside. They were rolled up with a creamy, white fluff on top.
Finally, through the crowd, Sal spotted the apothecary table. That’s where medicine and herbs and remedies were sold. As he walked up, he saw jars of all shapes and sizes, and each one contained some liquid substance. One was small and bright, cherry red. Another was tall and thin, with a cork in the top, and inside a rich liquid of several shades of green swirled about constantly.
“Can I help you?” said the shopkeeper, while picking through her supplies.
“Yes, I’m looking for some medicine for my father.”
“Hmmm. I’m sorry to hear that.” She glanced at Sal over her shoulder, looking him up and down. “Tell me about this sickness. What are the symptoms? Is he hot or cold? Does he eat?”
“He barely eats anything. He says he feels cold, and he shivers a lot. But his skin feels hot, and he’s sweaty.”
“All right.” she said, “Will he drink water? And what color are his eyes? Do they look at all different? Also, how does he sleep in the afternoons?”
“Ummm… yeah, he drinks a little water. But not much. I guess his eyes are brown.”
“No, not the normal color. Do they have any shades of green around the whites?”
“Yeah, there is a greenness to them sometimes. It’s odd. It comes and goes, but it’s there especially when he’s in pain.”
“Okay. Hmmm… and sleep, when does he sleep the best?” She asked, picking through bottles of medicine of all shapes and sizes.
“In the afternoons. Any other time he’s restless. That’s when he’s the most calm. But it’s still not great.”
“Okay. Got it! Here’s the one. This is what your father needs.” From a little wooden chest that was tucked away on the top shelf, she pulled out a small round bottle. It had a fat cork in the top, and a dull pink liquid inside that glowed slightly, but only when it was in the shade. Sal’s heart jumped at the sight of it.
“A few doses of that, and he’ll be back to full health in no time.”
Sal grabbed the money from his pocket, and handed it to the shopkeeper. She counted it real quick and frowned. She seemed to be thinking to herself for a moment. She looked at Sal again, like she was trying to figure him out. Then she smiled, put the money in her pocket, handed him the bottle of medicine, and said, “Here. Be careful with this. It’s my last bottle, and I won’t have any more for a whole year.” She smiled. “The ingredients, they’re not easy to find.”
“Thank you,” Sal said. “Thank you so much!”
Sal tucked the medicine into his pocket, and then turned back into the crowd, making his way home.
Since he had come to the market, the crowd had thickened a great deal, and it was hard at times to weave his way through. There was shouting and laughter, and loud conversation all about him. But he ducked and darted through gaps as they appeared, making his way through the mass of people. His heart race right along with him. Finally, his father would be okay. Finally, he’d be better. Sal couldn’t wait to get home.
The crowd parted slightly ahead of him, and he saw through to the edge of the forest. He picked up his pace, too excited to walk. But just as he cleared the gap, a man stumbled out and collided with Sal. He went flying, and hit the ground hard, his hip smashing the bottle. It cracked and the medicine poured out onto his clothes and the dusty ground.
“No, no, no!” Sal said.
“Watch it, kid,” said the man.
Sal glared at him, and then noticed that people were watching. The crowd had seen. He felt his face grow hot and his eyes well up. The conversations around stopped, and it grew quiet.
“Are you okay?” a woman asked Sal.
“Okay?! He was running through the street like a wild dog. It serves him right. Whose kid is he anyways?” said the man.
The crowd began chattering, arguing about the incident.
“He was running wild.”
“But he’s just a boy! The man’s being a beast about it.”
“What’s he doing out here alone in the first place. Hasn’t he got any parents?”
Sal flushed with anger, and he was embarrassed. He stood up, and timidly walked off, tucking his chin to his chest and locking his eyes on the ground. He tried to control his pace, but he felt as though something was chasing him, and quickly he was sprinting off towards the forest. And as he ran, bitter tears, salty, trickled down his cheeks. The medicine was ruined, and the money was gone.
Once he was out of sight, hidden in the thick world of leaves and branches, he slowed down. He gasped in each breath, trying to calm down.
He kept walking, one step after another, steadily moving forward through the forest. And after a while, his breathing slowed and he found it easier to think. He walked for a long time. He was so distracted by the incident, it was several hours before he stopped and looked around. And when he did, he realized something. He was lost.
He had never seen this part of the forest. These trees looked unfamiliar, strange even. Something about these woods felt different. There was a tall tree beside him that seemed to stretch higher than those around. It’s branches started low and thick. It was perfect for climbing, and from the top he might be able to see from the top where he was. He looked up. The tree was tall. Very tall. A tremble ran up and down his body, and a spell of dizziness washed over him. Nope. There would have to be another way.
It was just then when he was looking all around him, trying to figure out some plan, that something flew by. He turned, alert, waiting for it to move again. And then, it sprang from a bush, and fluttered about in wild circles. It was a butterfly. An orange butterfly, with black markings, just like the one he had seen before.
The butterfly flew through the trees, and Sal decided, since he was already lost, to follow it. He hopped over fallen logs, and wrestled through thick bushes, chasing after it. His shirt ripped and his pants were muddied as he struggled after it, but he just kept chasing.
Until finally, he pushed through a thicket of bushes, and stumbled out into a clearing. There was a creek flowing that gathered into a small, swirling pool. Alongside the pool was a tall ridge in the forest, with the entrance to a dark cave set in it. And alongside the entrance to the cave, stood a coyote. Not on all fours like a dog, but like a man. He was watching the butterfly intently with furrowed brows. The butterfly flittered about this coyote and landed softly on his shoulder. Then the coyote turned to Sal, as if recognizing him for the first time.
“Well, hello there!” said the Coyote. His voice rang out and echoed through the forest like a howl. “It’s always a pleasure to have company. Welcome, welcome to the headwaters of the famed Chippany Creek. It’s not everyday you stumble onto a scene like this. You should call yourself lucky. Please, do stay a while. I’m the Chippany Creek Coyote, and it’s a delight to have your company.”
He smiled, revealing several long, sharp teeth. Sal shivered.
“Yes, yes, yes… this’ll work just fine!” said the Coyote. “You go into the cave, and bring me back a flower. There are flowers that grow in there. In a cave of all places! You’d never believe it, but sure enough, they do. They grow in there. So that’s the plan. You go in, and you bring me one back. It’s a perfect!”
Sal kept a cautious distance from the Coyote, who roved around as he rambled on about his plan, his eyes darting all about with excitement.
“Why can’t you go in and get a flower yourself?” Sal asked.
The coyote chuckled wildly. “Me? Well, I can’t go in at all! No, no, it’s not like I can’t. It’s just that it does me no good. I’m totally blind in there. Can’t see a thing. Plus, something about it makes me… languid. You understand what I mean. I’m no good for a purpose in there. No good at all. You’ll have to do it. That’s the plan. You, not me. You. That’ll work.”
“But why would I go in the cave? I don’t even know what’s in there! I’m not just going to wander in.”
The coyote stopped mid-stride. He rotated his head and looked squarely at Sal. He stepped towards him, slowly, seeming to grow taller with each stride. “Don’t want to, do you? Need a little more convincing, do you?” he snarled.
Sal started backing up, but he tripped and fell to the ground. He froze, looking up at him. The Coyote towered over him. “Well, maybe this will serve your motivation,” he said through firm jaws.
Then, all of a sudden, he twisted his ear, like an unexpected thought had occurred, or he was listening to something. “Yes, I suppose that’s right. That is reasonable,” he said to himself.
He turned back to Sal, “All right, new deal. You see those waters there? The headwaters of the Chippany Creek. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. Here’s the thing, these waters, for some reason or other, they heal anyone who drinks them. I mean, if they’re sick or if they’re injured, this water heals them when they drink it. It’s a great quality. Wish more water had it. But, you work with what you have. Let’s say this, you go into that cave and get me a flower, and I’ll let you take some water.”
Sal’s heart raced, but he tried to stay calm. “But if you can’t get a flower yourself, what makes you think I’ll be able to get one? How will I do any better?”
The coyote sighed in frustration. “Well, first of all, it’s because I have a heightened sense of smell. And second… I refuse to answer such questions from a child. Especially one I’ve just given such an offer to! Now why don’t you just run along into that little cave and bring me back a flower. Be a good little sport, won’t you?”
“I have to?” Sal asked.
The Coyote looked Sal in the eyes, and nodded his head up and down.
“Because of what you’ll do to me if I don’t?”
“Well, I guess,” said the Coyote. He paused for a moment. Then he shook his head and said, “No, no, no. Fear’s a lousy motivation. Don’t think another thought about it. Think about the deal, about what I’m offering you. Water that heals! Can you believe it? I know you’re not sick now. You’re a strapping young lad. But maybe someday you will be, or maybe you know someone who is…”
The Coyote trailed off for a moment. “Anyways, think about that. Don’t think so much on the consequences of what we might call a ‘poor decision.’ Just make the right one! And for the right reasons. Do that, and we’ll all be fine. And you’ll get such a nice, special present in return,” he said with several winks.
Sal sighed. He wasn’t excited about the cave, but if he could find a flower, maybe this water could help his father.
“Okay,” he said, “Deal.”
“Fantastic!” cried the Coyote. “The best decision you’ve made all day, I’m sure. You won’t regret. I surely hope you won’t, at least. If it all turns out well. The cave does have some peculiar qualities, but enough about that for now. Off you go, and bring me back one flower. Just one will do. Thanks so much.”
He waved excitedly as Sal stepped into the darkness of the cave.
Inside the cave it was dark, except for the light from the torch the Coyote gave him as he ushered him in. It started as a narrow tunnel that bore back into the earth. Sal stepped his way through carefully, keeping a hand on the rocky wall as he walked ahead. And then, the walls fell away and the narrow tunnel opened into a vast cavern, like a factory warehouse in the earth.
He squinted, peering into the darkness, looking and listening for something, anything. But there was nothing. No flowers at all. Just his steady breathing amid the silence and the flickering of the flames in the darkness.
Oddly, what he did notice wasn’t related to sight or sound at all, but scent. The cavern smelled sweet, almost like cinnamon and sugar. Something about it felt, strangely, cozy.
“All right, just one flower,” he said. “And then I’m out of here.”
He explored the cavern, sticking to his left, keeping a hand on the wall, searching everywhere for a flower. Sometimes he saw things in the dark, shapes that were geometric in all kinds of dazzling colors, pinks and greens, oranges and even purples. They danced and shifted about in the dark, seeming like flowers at first. But then they would vanish, only to appear again a few minutes later in some other part of the cave. Sal couldn’t tell what was real.
And the further he ventured into the cavern, the more odd he felt. He could feel his wariness slipping away. It was harder to pay attention to his steps, and his legs felt heavy. And which each stride further into the cave, the sweet scent grew stronger. It was intoxicating, and made his head spin with fatigue.
Then, he tripped. As he stepped forward lazily, a rock caught his foot. And along with the torch, he tumbled to the ground. The torch splashed into a puddle and went out. And all of a sudden, Sal was enveloped in darkness. It was pitch black.
“Agh!” he cried out in frustration. “What am I supposed to do now.” he thought. He crawled back to the wall and leaned against it, still sitting on the ground.
He sat thinking of his father. He remembered all the lessons his father taught him. He remembered fishing together, catching trout in the Chippany Creek and frying up dinner. He remembered his father teaching him to swing an axe. He remembered his father telling him stories. Stories of the forest, stories of long ago, and stories of his mother.
How had he come to be here? He sat thinking about it all.
He sighed and tipped his head back, resting it against the wall of the cavern, when something caught his attention. Very faint and very small. Flowers. Flowers that didn’t move or dance away. Flowers that weren’t tricks of the eyes. Flowers that were real.
They were scattered across the ceiling in patches. Clumps of rosy, dull pink flowers, glowing in the darkness. Sal had found them! But just as soon as he did, his stomach sunk and churned. There was only one way to reach them. Climbing.
“It’s okay. You can do this. You know how to do this,” he said to himself. He felt sick.
But he remembered his father’s voice, “Someday, you need to this. You need to be able to work through this fear.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t expect someday to come so soon,” he thought.
He stood to his feet, and felt his way along the wall, trying to find a good place to climb. “You’ll be fine. You can do this.” He thought about his father. “I can do this,” he said.
He grabbed hold of the rocks sticking out, and began climbing. The wall was rough and sharp, but he kept climbing, one reach, one step after another. He climbed higher and higher, with each reach coming closer to the flowers. As he rose, the sweet scent grew stronger and more dizzying. He felt more and more fatigued and worn out. Drowsy. Languid.
Finally, he had almost reached the top. He turned out from the wall, clinging tightly to the rock. The pink flowers swayed a bit, glowing in the darkness. Such strange flowers, but beautiful. Sal reached, his fingers glowing in the light from the flowers, and pinched the stem of one between his fingers. He tugged, and it snapped free. Pink dust burst out like a mini firework, and the glowing dust spread and fell, trickling down right on Sal’s face. Suddenly, he lost all strength. He blinked and struggled to open his eyes. His gripped slipped from the rock, and he fell from the wall, drifting off to sleep as he did. Down, down, down… darkness.
Sal opened his eyes. He lay on the grassy ground, branches and leaves looming large above him, rays of light shooting in. Birds chirped and sang melodies around him, and water trickled into the pool and splashed playfully on rocks. He watched the orange butterfly bounce around, dancing in the air above him.
“That was a nasty fall,” the Coyote’s voice rang out, breaking the calm of the wood. “Do you realize how high up you were?! You should exercise a little more care. Sloppy climbing like that can get a fella in trouble. How are you feeling? Are you okay? Are you hurt? Are you hurt badly?”
Sal sat up and tried to feel for injuries. “No. No, I think I’m all right. Thanks for saving me.”
“Saving you?! Who said anything about saving you? Listen, the thing that needs to be done, still has yet to be done. And things need to be done. It is a pity you didn’t get a flower. You were so close…”
While the Coyote rambled, Sal noticed that he could still smell the sweet scent of the flowers. He tried to follow it, sniffing and looking around for the source. He saw something sticking out of his bag, something green, like the stalk of a plant or flower. He fumbled his hand inside and pulled out one wonderful smelling, rosy pink flower. Even now the scent dulled his awareness.
“Where did you get that?!” the Coyote exclaimed. “I mean, I guess I know where you got that. I just didn’t realize you had that. Oh, the deal is done! The deal is done! You got the flower! Way to go, Sal. Way to go. I’m proud, so proud and happy. Now please, let’s complete the deal, and I’ll have the flower.”
He practically pounced on Sal, grabbing the flower from him, while also patting him on the head and winking, smiling with his sharp teeth. “Now it’s your turn, my boy! The water is all yours. Water from the famed source of the one and only Chippany Creek, the greatest creek to never touch the Mississippi. Go ahead, fill up your bottle. Take as much as you like.” The Coyote pressed the petals into his face and breathed deeply, delighting in the sweetness of the flower.
Sal smiled and felt a rush of relief. The water was his. His father was going to be okay. He took his bottle and knelt down on the side of the pool. He dipped his hands in and let the smooth water run between his fingers. It was cold and smooth. It felt like life. He put the bottle under the surface and let the swirling water fill it up.
As he crouched there, filling his bottle, the Coyote chuckled softly and then spoke. Something about his voice sounded… different. “You should know, Sal, there’s something I’ve failed to be up front with you about. There’s something I haven’t succeeded in letting you know. But that’s all right, because we’ll make it all square right here.”
The tone of his voice made Sal shiver.
“You see, the thing I haven’t told you is about the water. It’s really just water. It doesn’t heal at all.”
The Coyote moved in a flash, lunging towards him. Sal turned and shielded himself, but the Coyote struck like lightning. He was too quick, and he pushed Sal hard, sending him stumbling into the water. As he splashed into the pool, immediately, the calm waters started swirling viciously. The waters rushed in circles, foaming and raging.
The Coyote’s voice cackled above the water’s roar. “It’s not the water that heals. It’s the flower! And it’s mine! It’s all mine!”
Sal reached, trying to grab hold of something, anything, to steady himself. But the current raced in circles around the pool, ferocious waves, galloping and tossing him around like a boat caught in a storm at sea. Sal gasped for air and flailed in the water, desperate to cling to something solid. When all of a sudden, like the breaking of a dam, the water broke from the pool and rushed up the creek with a deafening roar, carrying him along with it.
Sal caught hold of a log floating in the water and steadied himself. The current bearing him away, he looked back at the scene. The Coyote stood beside the pool of water. The orange butterfly flapped on his shoulder, and he seemed to be talking to it softly. His hand was extended in front of him, and it was open, palm up. Resting in his hand, was the flower.
Then the Coyote turned his head and, from that distance, stared straight into Sal’s eyes. And he smiled. The creek carried Sal up over the hill, and the Coyote was gone.
Sal couldn’t tell how long the water rushed him along. Or what were the bends and turns that it took. All he knew was that at the end of it, the forest had grown dark, and night had set in. The water slowed itself more and more, until finally, it trickled and swirled its way through the forest like any small creek. It was then that Sal stood up and realized something. He knew where he was. Finally, he wasn’t lost anymore. He recognized this part of the forest, and this was part of the Chippany Creek. Home was close.
But still, he had nothing. The money was wasted. The medicine was ruined. Even the flower was lost. He had nothing, and still his father was sick. He missed home. He missed his father. But the thought of walking in an empty-handed failure made his stomach churn. He couldn’t stand disappointing his father like that. But it was true, he’d failed him.
He felt so frustrated, as if he was on the verge of bursting like some exploding star, overheated from too much angst. His face grew hot. Tears blurred his vision and wet the corners of his eyes. He rubbed his face, and he cried.
He had climbed out of the river and sat on the ground against a tree on the bank. He sat in a daze, breathing heavy and slow, watching the water trickle and swirl. He sat there for a long time, just breathing.
When, after a while, he noticed something up above. Something was glowing. It was a dull pink, rosy color. It was falling slowly from the treetops, coming down like a small, pink parachute. The flower was falling right down to him. Sal stood and put out his hand. The flower floated down softly, and landed right in his palm. A smile broke out across Sal’s cheeks, as he clutched it in his fingers and raced home.
His father was pale and weak. He could barely sit up on the bed as he leaned forward to sip the piping hot and sweet smelling tea.
The fire was out and the cabin was dark when Sal arrived. So he gathered some kindling and wood and started a fire in the woodstove. The flames were small at first, but soon they grew and danced about in the window of the stove, while the burning wood crackled.
The kettle of water warmed, as he checked on his father. He was asleep, but it wasn’t a peaceful sleep. He groaned and shifted about weakly. Soon the kettle whistled and Sal dropped the pink flower into a mug of hot water, breaking up the petals as he did. The flower sat in the water as trails of pink leaked out and swirled, mixing and changing the hot water into tea. After a good steep, Sal brought the mug to his father.
He leaned forward and as his pale lips touched the mug, he sipped the hot tea. And almost immediately, his face flushed with some faint color. He took another sip. And another. And with each sip, more color returned to his face, and his posture shifted and grew stronger. He was reviving. Finally, he drank it down to the dregs, finishing it all.
His chest heaved with heavy breaths. He looked at Sal, at his son, and a smile broke out across his face. He was healed. Sal jumped up into his arms, and Sal’s father laughed as they wrestled and hugged. And as the night wore on, the father and son were rejoined.
Sal told his father about the market, climbing in the cave, and making tea from the flower. And Sal’s father laughed with delight at each part of the story, except for the coyote, about which he grew quiet and curious. He didn’t ask questions, but he seemed to want to know more.
And they talked late into the night, so enamoured with one another that they completely failed to notice the company that visited them. Because throughout the dark hours of the night, there sat a butterfly upon their windowsill. It was an orange butterfly, with strange black markings on it. And it sat there waiting, watching, and listening to the tales they shared. And then, in the morning light, it flew off into the forest.
But, as I mentioned, Sal and his father never noticed, for they were much too delighted with each other.