Illustrated by Michael Betts
Tara bade her mother goodbye as she pranced out the door. She was supposed to meet Helen by the river and was already late. Her hair flew out behind her like a sheet of silk dyed a bright red as she raced in the direction of the forest. Over rocks and small streams she skipped, light as a fairy. This clearing within the woods was her home. She knew every neighboring tree and vibrant flower by scent and name.
Slowly, Tara’s leaps became smaller skips, until she finally started walking. She was no longer in safe territory, or so her mother told her. The path leading directly from her cottage home led eastward, toward the town. But westward was the wilder forest. And here it was that Tara enjoyed her freedom.
Her slow strides finally brought her to a clearing, surrounded by a circular formation of trees. This clearing was much smaller than the one in which her cottage house happily sat. But the space was big enough for two young girls, eagerly waiting for their new day of activity to begin.
The big flat rock was there, as usual, in the middle of the clearing. Her friend was not here yet. She might as well look around while waiting for Helen.
And so Tara ventured further west from the clearing. The flowers along her way seemed to bow in a cascade of movement as she took one step, then another, into more unexplored territory. The vibrant sapphire blue, sunny yellows and fiery reds and oranges of the flora at her feet kept her occupied.
Until the waterfall. During their previous days of merriment, the two friends had always passed by, but never paid much heed to the roaring column of water. Now, Tara was standing right at the riverbank. The waterfall was to her left, and the water streamed downhill toward her right. The lovely gushing and bubbling sound of the water fascinated the little girl.
There was a light mist created by the cool water residue falling from above, the source of the waterfall which Tara never saw before. But through the mist, she saw a gap between the waterfall and an entrance to a cave that the two friends had not previously spotted.
Tara slowly crept forward to check out the cave. Curiosity got the better of her, and she was soon standing right at the entrance, the waterfall rushing along behind her. She grew ecstatic. She would finally show Helen that she was much braver than her: she would go into the cave, find something valuable deep inside the dark depths, and bring it back to the clearing where Helen would be a-waiting.
What should this token be? A curiously shaped stone? Some flower that grew only within the cave? Alas, it would make no difference. The little girl found that, above all else, she simply wanted to satisfy her curiosity. Tara sniffed. This would be no hard task.
Into gradual darkness she continued, until the light from outside was barely visible. Her curiosity getting the better of her, she ventured further in until she could not even see the ground beneath her feet.
Oh how foolish am I, I can’t even see where I am going. How will I find anything valuable here?
And with that last thought in mind, she fell into darkness, through a gap she could not see.
Her tumble was short, and she fell on her bottom, landing atop something soft. She felt a sharp pain on her leg somewhere.
This is what you get for not thinking things through, you silly little girl.
Self-admonishment only made Tara feel worse. Tears stung her eyes. She just wanted to go home.
But her misery was washed away just as quickly as it had come, replaced with curiosity once more. There stood a stone statue, just a few feet away from her. The stone figure was that of a lady, her tresses carved around her face and tumbling down, like a waterfall, to her feet. She was beautiful; her eyes were closed, her lips were smiling.
Tara managed to stand up, her pain temporarily forgotten. A couple of steps forward, and she was standing right in front of the beautiful stone figure. She felt the corners of her mouth stretch involuntarily upward; something about the lady made her feel warm inside. Tara remembered the smell of her mother’s freshly baked cookies, the brilliant rainbow colors of the flowers and trees outside and Helen’s laughter of delight during the girls’ many play-dates. She would find a way back to all of these. Sitting around and crying would do no good.
Again, Tara gazed once more into the beautiful countenance of stone and wondered how such a beautiful thing had come to be abandoned in this gloomy cave. Where was its owner? Was the statue sad? But no it was smiling! The lady looked as happy as—
—wait, it was supposed to be dark in here, was it not?
While circling around the stone figure, Tara had reached a wall of stone behind the lady’s tresses. It, like the statue herself, was lit up. And the light was coming from a faraway speck of light, off to the side. Of course! The light was what had enabled her to see this statue! And light meant an exit.
Beautiful stone lady forgotten, Tara made a mad dash for the speck in the distance. She could gradually hear the steady rush and bubbling of the waterfall as she drew closer to the light.
At last, she stood at the round exit. She felt a joy like no other as she saw the softening red of the dying day bathing over the landscape before her. There were trees lining the path before her, leading away from the cave, standing like tall and steady giants ready to guide her back home. She stood there for a little longer, her heart still racing in her chest. Tara could no longer remember what happened prior to this moment; all she wanted to do was to get home.
She could hear Helen yelling her name somewhere above her. That was right. Tara recalled the fall now. The waterfall was somewhere above her, as well as the riverbank. Tara answered her friend, to which Helen came running downhill. The red-headed and dirt-covered little girl embraced her friend in a warm hug.
Tara stepped out of her car and brushed her dark auburn hair out of her eyes. As she gazed upon the familiar trees and clearing of her past youthful days, Tara could not help but feel something weighing heavily against her joy and nostalgia. She quickly checked the display on her phone for the umpteenth time that day, to see if there were any new messages.
She slammed the door of her car shut and ventured further out into the clearing. Not much had changed since that day 25 years ago. The trees were still there in their round formation. The wind still blew coolly through the gaps in the trees, creating a whistling sound as it passed by her ears and softly grazed her cheek with a strand of her dark red-brown hair.
Tara could still hear the laughter of two young, naïve girls in her mind.
And yet, the little girl of the past did not have to worry about pleasing others at work, about others depending on her, about trying to find time for herself.
The laughter in the distance persisted. Tara followed these sounds westward, until she heard another familiar sound.
She stopped. It was a waterfall – again. But her heart was immediately filled with a sense of dread that she couldn’t really explain. The harsh pounding of the water was like television static that had been amplified a thousand times over. No, this was not a pleasant place to be. She took a few steps backward and slipped down the short hill over which the river flowed down to the right.
Now this was familiar. The sensation of falling, of not knowing where you would land, of not knowing if you would live to tell another tale…
The landing was less graceful, albeit shorter, this time. Her fall ended with her face-down in damp dirt, arms scratched and a dull throbbing pain in her left knee. Tara groaned but picked herself up. At least she was still on firm ground, and she was outside in the light.
But as she picked herself up, she faced a familiar sight. A gaping, dark and round entrance. And somewhere deep within that dark world was a speck of gray, which Tara now recalled was something she had discovered in the past.
She felt herself drawn to that statue, almost as if she were a firefly being drawn involuntarily to a bright lamppost. She took her time, with strides that were slow but steady.
And finally, Tara was gazing upon a familiar face. Time had been gracious to this stone lady; her features were as delicate and beautiful as ever. Tara subconsciously lifted a hand to her own face and rubbed at the creases that had already started to form around her forehead.
But wait, was this really the same statue? As far as Tara could remember, the beautiful lady she found 25 years ago had been smiling. But the stone figure in front of her now was visibly sad. Her stony lips were pursed into a grim line, her eyes closed as if in sorrow. Tara felt a pang in her chest, perhaps of sorrow… reflecting what she saw?
A little disturbed by what she was witnessing, Tara turned around and left without a word. She had come for a last look around the area before signing the contract of sale that would grant her family’s cottage to a real estate developer. The home would be destroyed, the land used for some greater good. Tara did not know, nor did she care. Neither she nor her mother would ever have reason to return to the clearing near the forest again.
She brought out her phone again, to find numerous text messages and notifications of new e-mails on the display. She had tarried for too long in that cave of her childhood. Duty called.
The air rang with peals of laughter and excited yells, all coming from one little girl with fiery red hair. This was her first ever time being surrounded by such bountiful nature! Look at the trees, they are like brown giants with green hair! And look at the butterflies, they are so pretty and delicate! Oh-h, and look at that waterfall! Isn’t that the most beautiful thing ever?
Tara found herself being dragged by the arm toward the same waterfall she had first stumbled upon more than 60 years ago. But whether it was because of the excitement and noise that the little girl in front of her was making, or because she was starting to lose her hearing (she suspected the former was the case), Tara could not hear the same rushing and aggressive pounding of the waterfall that she had heard during her previous visit. The air was calm, a mist forming and spreading from the waterfall. The sky was bathed a light pink and orange-red.
Struck by sudden inspiration, Tara found herself calling to the little child, who had started chasing squirrels. Almost as if by second nature, Tara’s footsteps led her downhill, a little away from the waterfall and riverbank, to the right, and in front of the lower cave entrance once more.
The little girl’s hand in hers, Tara ventured forward. Don’t worry, my child, there’s nothing here that can harm you if you just keep your eyes open and be careful with your steps.
But these words were unnecessary. The girl had already spotted the prize at the end of the road. She let go of Tara’s hand and bounded forward to the stone lady.
Oh look! What a beautiful woman! She has some funny colors on her face, and her hair is so long, but I can tell she is a nice person.
Tara looked down at the child.
Oh really? And how do you know this, dear?
Isn’t it obvious? Her smile says it all!
Tara blinked. And blinked again. No, that couldn’t be right? The statue that she remembered was sorrowful; surely, the woman had been beautiful, but her face bespoke a deep woe, a kind of sorrow one would feel gnawing away deep inside the heart.
Afraid to confirm if this was true, but just as curious as the red-headed youth had been so many years ago, the now white-haired Tara glanced up and straight into the stony countenance.
The little girl had been right; time had not been so kind to the lady’s face this time. Moss had started growing around her forehead, curled around from the back of her head and across one cheek. But her features remained delicate, and her eyes closed, thoughtful as ever.
But, by God, the little red-headed child had been correct!
A smile was visible upon her lips, thin but true. A smile that had carried on through the years. A smile that had endured through thick and thin, through sorrow and joy.
An innocent smile that had faltered, oh yes. But a smile that had never truly disappeared, etched in stone.