The forbidden path

  • Short story: The forbidden path
  • Written: 2003/2004
  • Translated: From danish, 2006

I stopped at a point where the old forest path split in two. This is where they found my father, I thought. My father had died about a year earlier. They had found him lying on the ground, with every bone in his body broken, as if he had fallen and hit the ground at high speed. But there was nothing to fall from, except for trees, and they weren’t nearly tall enough to cause such severe injuries. Officially his death was classified as an accident, but no one had ever been able to determine the true cause of how he died.

I looked in one direction. The path was dark and gloomy, and only surrounded by old coniferous trees. This was the path I used to take, because my mother had told me to. She had forbidden me to take the other one. ‘It’s dangerous, and you might get lost,’ she always said.

There was an old tale in the local area, about a mystery world with the entrance located somewhere in these woods. This world was said to make anyone have their most precious dreams come true. The only catch was that the world would be testing you. You had to survive whatever dangers the world might expose you to, to meet your fears and conquer them. The world would be messing with your mind, and you would have to sort the mess out. Was this why my mother didn’t want me to leave the normal path? Did she believe in this fairytale?

I glanced in the other direction. Here the path was surrounded by huge, green birches, and as I followed the path with my eyes, I saw a river further into the forest. Strange, I thought, that I had not seen the river before. I had walked past this path so many times in my life.

I was supposed to go straight through the forest, but there was something about this other path. I wanted to go have a look at the river. I wanted to find out what was over there.

Once again, I looked down the path that my mother so many times had forbidden me to take. Just a quick look can’t hurt, I thought, as I started walking towards the river. Slowly, I came closer to the sound of the water, roaring against rocks and cliffs. When I reached the river, I looked around. The path continued into the green luxuriant woods on the other side, but the river was too wild to cross at this point.

My body was filled with a strange, sort of happy feeling. I found the idea of getting to the other side appealing, but I didn’t know why. I started walking alongside the river, to find a better place to cross it. As I came further up the river, the water gradually began to calm down. Not too far away, I finally reached a point where a row of rocks created a path across the river. I hesitated for a while, but eventually decided to step on the rocks to get to the other side.

Putting one foot in front of the other, I slowly moved across the rocks, one at a time, until I was half way over. At this point I stopped, admiring the beautiful view of the river. But all of a sudden, I felt like I stood on something much softer than the rocks. I looked down at my feet and discovered that the gray bumpy rock was no longer there. Instead it had become light blue and transparent, and its edges were round and smooth. It looked almost like a floating water drop.

I was so surprised by the sight I couldn’t move. It was like if my body had locked itself, not allowing me to do anything. I got anxious and began to breathe heavily.

But then a thought of my father occupied my mind. I took a deep breath, and somehow the combination of the thought and the big breath helped me calm down. I was able to lift my head and look around. Everything else seemed to be unchanged, but the other rocks I had stepped on earlier were all gone.

So there I was, standing on something that looked like a floating water drop, in the middle of a wide river, and with no way to get back to the shore. But that was the least of my problems, because without warning the water drop suddenly disappeared under my feet, and I began falling towards the surface of the river.

Everything became black before my eyes, but I could hear the murmur from the wind around me as I fell. I began to see bright spots in front of my eyes, as a contrast to all the black. Then the picture of a beach made its way into my mind. On the beach sat my parents, together with a child of about two or three years of age. It hit me that the child was me. The picture was a memory from the past. We had often been on that beach, before my father died.

Suddenly, the murmur stopped, and the picture disappeared, as I hit the surface with a loud “splash”. For a moment I could see the water whirl up in front of my face, even though I had shut my eyes.

I sank down towards the bottom of the river, deeper and deeper for every second that passed. Naturally my body struggled to get to the surface, but without any result. It felt like some kind of force was trying to drag me down. I began to panic as I felt the air in my lungs was running out. I struggled for my life, but the useless attempts only made me weaker. I barely saw how the last beams from the sun, pushing as far down under the surface as possible, disappeared as they were lost into the deep river, before I fainted.

*

I woke up again to the sound of dripping water. Am I in heaven now, I thought, but then I realized that I was in a cave. There are no caves in heaven, are there?

I had a terrible headache, and my vision was blurry. How did I get here? I tried to stay calm, explaining to myself that I was probably in a cave somewhere under the river. I must have ended up here by coincidence. I couldn’t explain the disappearing of the rocks, though, so naturally, my mind classified it as a dream, as if it had never happened. But I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps I had found the entrance to the world the tales told about.

I looked around, and discovered where the sound came from. Right next to me there was a puddle of water, and from the top of the cave water dripped down into it in a fast rhythm. I was tremendously thirsty, and the headache was killing me, so I got down on my knees and started drinking from the puddle. The water tasted bad, but my headache started to lighten up, and my vision became normal. I got up and thought about what to do next. I knew I had to find a way out of there. I walked around the cave for a while, trying to find a way out. It felt hopeless, and I admit that I was terrified all the time.

I was just about to give up, when a voice appeared.

“Don’t give up, son,” it said.

“Father?” I said and looked around. There was no one there.

“Don’t give up,” the voice said again. I was confused, because I couldn’t see anyone anywhere, just rocks and walls. Then I realized that the voice was in my head. A memory again. My father always used to tell me not to give up, whenever a problem seemed impossible.

Then I saw it. A crack in the wall. Perhaps I could squeeze through it. It turned out that I was just small enough to get through, if I blew the air out of my lungs first.

Yes, I said quietly to my self as I got through the crack and into a tunnel. Thank you father. I wasn’t out in the open, but at least now I had something to follow. I didn’t know where the tunnel would take me, but knowing it would take me somewhere was enough. I got some new energy, and it didn’t feel so hopeless anymore, as I began my walk into the mysteries of the tunnel.

As I got further, the tunnel became darker and darker, until I couldn’t see my own hands in front of me. I put a hand on the cold and moist wall, and used it as guidance. Luckily, I began to see a red and orange light ahead of me, and eventually, I could see the entrance to a larger cavern. The source of the light seemed to come from somewhere inside that cave.

As I stepped out of the tunnel and into the large cave, I saw the entrance to another tunnel at the other side of a wide hole in the floor. The whole cave, which was quite big with a roof almost like in a cathedral, was lit up in red, and I noticed that the light came from somewhere down the hole. I stepped closer to the edge, and looked down. A heat wave struck my face, and I gasped as I saw what was down there. Not far down, a stream of lava made its way through the cave. Quickly I jumped back from the edge of the hole, and fell backwards as I tripped over a rock on the ground.

*

What now, I thought. Something told me I needed to get to that tunnel on the other side. But how could I get across the hole? It was too wide to jump over. Then I saw a wooden bridge a bit to my right. It didn’t look stable, but it was a way to get to the other side.

I got up from the ground and went over to the bridge. If I could cross it, I would get away from this place, but if I stayed, I would be stuck in the cave forever.

The choice was obvious, so I grabbed the rope at the side of the bridge, which functioned as a railing, and gathered all of my courage. I was scared, and the sweat ran down my face. I didn’t feel like crossing the bridge, but staying in the cave until I starved to death wasn’t exactly a dream come true either.

I walked carefully on the bridge, afraid that it would break. The heat from the lava licked my feet, and I did my best not to look down. One step at a time, I managed to get past the middle. I held the railing hard, nervous that something would break or that I would trip over something unexpected. When I was close enough I prepared to take one giant leap to the firm ground in front of me, but just then one of the old wooden planks I stood on broke under my feet. I tripped and fell over the railing, but fortunately my foot got stuck in the rope. I hung down from the bridge, with my head facing downwards, so I could see the stream of lava beneath me. The heat was burning and the pain was intense. Pictures occupied my mind once again. I saw my mother sitting by the side of my father’s bed. She was crying. I asked her what was wrong, but she didn’t answer. That was the day I found out about my father’s death.

The rope holding me back began to break, but the thought of my father made me get together all of the strength I had left. I swung up and grabbed the railing, and with my last forces I managed to get back up onto the bridge. Even though I wanted to, I didn’t stay on the bridge to rest. I ran the last part of the way, and without actually realizing it I had made it to the other side. I took a breather, and at the same time the rope holding the bridge up broke completely and the bridge fell down towards the lava.

I sat for a while to rest, but later decided to continue to find out where the next tunnel would take me.

The tunnel was dark, and it turned and twisted a lot. I cut my hands on sharp edges and rocks, and my knees were all blue from bumping into the walls all the time.

At last I began to see light. Not the red kind of light as in the cave, but real light, as from the sun. I started to move faster, and to my delight I discovered that the tunnel led out into the open. I could see the sky and some mountain tops covered in snow, even before I was out of the tunnel. When I reached the end of the tunnel, I was met by the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. I stood on the top of a mountain, looking down at a deep valley, filled with luxuriant foliage, wild rivers, beautiful lakes and waterfalls and white birds flying over the treetops. Never before had I seen something this magnificent. Somehow the sight reminded me of my father.

But then I started to get cold. I was only wearing my white T-shirt and a pair of blue shorts, which my father had given to me on my birthday.

I walked further out on the mountain, and realized that I was walking in snow. Where I came from it never snowed, and I had never before seen or felt real snow. I bent down to pick some of it up, but I barely touched it with my fingertips before something happened. One of my shoes started to grow, and in no time at all, it was so big that I was standing inside it. I could only barely see over the edge of the shoe.

After that, the shoe began to slide in the snow. The shoe, with me in it, was shortly after gliding at high speed down towards the valley, past trees, waterfalls and rivers, until we were all the way down. Here we slid through a pack of snow and out on a frozen lake. The shoe slid far out on the frozen water before it finally came to a complete stop. I just stood there with my mouth wide open, staring over the edge of the shoe. It surprised me that the lake was frozen, and that there was snow on the ground and trees around it. The valley had looked so lush from the top of the mountain.

Without further ado, the shoe started shrinking, until it fit neatly on my foot again. What was happening, I thought. Was I really in this world of mystery the stories told about? Was I being tested by the world itself?

Shocked and amazed at the same time, I had to sit down on the cold ice. My legs couldn’t hold me up. I looked around. The lake was quite large, and surrounded by trees covered in snow. The birds were still flying above the treetops. I had managed to stay calm, but now the feelings were taking over. I was overwhelmed by what was happening. I didn’t know what was going on, and I couldn’t do anything to prevent it.

“Give me a chance,” I said with a low voice. The request was pointed at the world itself. If it really was testing me it wasn’t doing it in a fair matter.

“Give me a chance!” This time I was screaming. I put my arms around my legs and pulled them closer towards my chest. I leaned my head against my knees, and then started crying. It wasn’t fair at all.

I don’t know how long I sat there. The cold didn’t really bother me. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself. It all felt so hopeless. But as time went by I began thinking about my father. It felt like he was with me, and the more I thought about him, the stronger I felt.

I’ve got to do something, I thought. My father would have wanted me to. I began thinking about what to do next. I had a number of choices, and when I thought about it, I had always had one. I could have stayed in the cave, but the thought of my father kept me going. And the thought of my father was also what got me to cross the bridge, and it calmed me down when I stood on the rock in the river. Perhaps the world wasn’t being unfair after all? Perhaps my father had guided me through the dangers?

“Father,” I said looking at the sky. Are you there? Then suddenly, the trees around me began to disappear, like if it all was a painting someone had spilled water over. The white trees floated together with the mountains in the background, and the birds flying in the sky turned into white stains. In the end I was only surrounded by white walls and a white roof. The ice on the lake was still there though.

“Father?” I said. “Is that you?” Then something happened to the ice as well. It began to crack in several places. The dark water beneath it became visible, and within seconds the whole lake was covered by ice blocks. Fortunately, they were large enough for me to stand on.

I had ended up on a block that floated a bit apart from the others. The distance to the other ice blocks was way too large to jump over. I sat down and didn’t know what to do next. It was as if every time I felt strong enough to do something, to make a move, the world ruined it by sending me in another direction.

I got caught up by my own thoughts. I was thinking about my parents and all the things we had done together. My father, before I had died. My mother and how sad she had been after the loss of her husband.

Then I woke up again, distracted by the sound of roaring water. I looked up and saw that the white wall was gone. Instead, the lake had become so large, the only thing I could see in the horizon was millions of floating ice blocks.

I turned around to see where the sound came from. Alarmed by the sound becoming louder, I then noticed that the ice blocks ahead of me were disappearing one by one, as they fell down a waterfall. Desperate I got up, trying to find a way out of there. The ice blocks were still too far apart to jump on. I sat down and felt the water. It was cold, and I knew that I wouldn’t survive for long if I jumped in it, since I had nothing to heat me up. I calmed down and sat down again on the middle of the ice block, knowing there was nothing I could do. I waited, as I slowly drifted closer to the waterfall. Like struck by a lightening, I then realized what had to come: I was about to die! I was about to suffer the same death as my father. I could feel it.

When I was nearly there, I closed my eyes. I was scared. I thought of my father once again, who probably waited for me in heaven. Then I thought of my mother, who was without doubt mad because I was not home yet.

The sound of the waterfall was extremely loud now, and all of a sudden I felt a tickle in my stomach, almost like before going down a rollercoaster in an amusement park. I knew that we were falling, the ice block and I.

We fell for a long time, and at last I dared to open my eyes. I wanted to see how far it was left until we would hit something, but I couldn’t see anything except for the water and the millions of ice blocks still falling far down below me. Everything around it was black.  I fell for several minutes, without seeing anything else than water and ice. I liked the feeling of falling freely, and a smile made it to my lips.

But then I saw something. A small spot of light on top of all the black. It looked almost like a star on a cloud free night. More lights lit up, and only moments after it truly looked like a midnight sky. Then a blue cloud came out of nowhere, showing itself in the distance. I saw it as a light fog far away, but it quickly grew larger. Soon, it covered half of everything around me. It started to take shape as something. A face. I didn’t recognize it, but as it became more and more detailed, I saw that it was my father.

I reached my hand out to touch the cloud face, but it was too far away.

I want you to be with me, I said, but then the cloud disappeared just as quickly as it had come. The water and the ice blocks disappeared as well, and the stars too. I was only surrounded by complete darkness, but I could still feel that I was falling.

Out of the blue, I could suddenly see a green spot below me. It was very small, but as I came closer to it, it grew rapidly. Or was it the green spot that came closer to me? Because I had been falling for so long I had become accustomed to the feeling. I didn’t even really notice it anymore.

As the distance shortened, I began to see what the green spot was. It was a forest, seen from above.

The forest was now so close, that I had to shut my eyes again. Next, I could feel that I hit something hard. The pain rushed through my body, and I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn’t do that either. It felt like I was flying. Not falling like before, but flying. At that time, another picture showed itself in front of me: I could see the forest from above again. In the middle of it there was a path that split in two, and at the split there was a body. It didn’t move, and it looked like it had hit the ground at high speed. It was me, I realized. The lifeless body belonged to me.

Everything felt so clear to me now. The tales were true. I had discovered the entrance to the mystery world, but I hadn’t been able to complete its tests, and now I had to pay for it. Or perhaps I was wrong?

A bright light began to surround me, and I saw a shadow of a man walking towards me.

“My son,” the shadow said.

“Father?” I replied quietly. All of my fears vanished, as my body filled up with joy and expectations. “Is that you?”

“Yes, my son,” was the answer I got.

The shadow reached out his hand towards me. Sparkles of all colors filled the white around us, as I grabbed the hand, and I felt joy inside. The dark shadow began to light up in a magnificent colorful show. I could see his face now. He looked just as I remembered him.

“Come,” he said and turned around. “You must follow the light, my son.”

I walked up beside my father. The light surrounding us formed a pathway, which we followed. The sparkling colors jumped around us, chasing each other playfully. I had never before felt this happy. My dream had come true.