Chapter 21

When Samantha awoke, Ji and his companions were already up, stoking a fire and cooking some oatmeal Grandpa had bought. All were sitting around the fire waiting for Samantha. When Samantha emerged from the tent and walked over to the fire, everyone quieted down and looked at her, as if waiting for the day’s direction.

“Do you have any idea where we will be walking today?” Ji asked. He smiled and took a sip of something in a mug.

“Actually,” Samantha said. “I do have a plan. We are walking east, all day, towards the lake.”

“The lake? Oh…” Ji said. He looked as if he knew something he wasn’t letting on. Both of his companions stared gravely at Samantha.

All that day they walked. Samantha asked Harr to lead out, routing the most efficient direction toward the distant lake. He had heard of it but hadn’t been there himself.

While they walked, Samantha wondered if she should have listened to Grandpa. Could the musical notes really represent Pisces, and could Pisces really mean the lake? It seemed too simple, too close. Wouldn’t Ji’s clan have scouted out everything within 100 miles of their camp already?

Grandpa knew the lake fairly well, having fished their before. Of course when he went fishing at the lake he drove rather than walked, but it wasn’t too far by foot either.

Harr kept the group moving at a brisk pace. They stopped to rest for water and food several times, but mostly they walked on in silence. Grandpa’s initial jabbering about astronomy died down, and though he was a senior, he kept up with the group. He seemed to have an eagerness in his step.

Samantha started to question the large glowing orbs she had seen. Were they all in her head? But maybe that was the point — everything was in your head. We just process the information

Ji moved along with his walking stick. “Samantha, by chance did you consult the map?” The rest of the party thought he was referring to the good map.

“Yes,” she said. “I had a chance to look at the map last night rather closely. Very interesting, that map. Powerful. If you like, we can study it together.”

“Oh no,” Ji said. “You’re our interpreter and guide.” Ji obviously didn’t want to be tricked into absorbing the curse. After this invitation, he followed along quietly, mostly relinquishing his role as a leader and becoming a follower.

Near evening the group reached the lake. The lake was about 1,000 feet wide and nearly two miles long. A few boats floated along the surface, occupied by fisherman holding poles. The sky was cloudy but the weather was warm, and a light breeze blew across the water.

“Well,” Ji said, snickering. “We’re here. I don’t see anybody. Maybe we should shout their names to let them know we’ve arrived?”

Samantha shot Ji an angry gaze and took a deep breadth. Of course the people could be gathered anywhere along the lake, or in the lake’s environs. They could circle the lake, looking for trails and cues. But something about it felt empty and wrong. Samantha tapped Grandpa on the shoulder and led him a little ways off from the group.

“Grandpa, we’re here but I don’t see any signs of a lost people at this lake. Do you really think this is the place?”

“Well, it could be,” he said, nonchalantly.

“Could be? But I thought you said the map showed Pisces, and this suggested this lake, that perhaps they were fisherman.”

“To be honest,” Grandpa said, “it was just a guess. The notes don’t really look like Pisces. In fact, it’s hard to even see Pisces in the sky at this time of year. I just thought that if I were a departing group, I’d go towards this lake because no matter what your specialty, whether you’re a farmer or a hunter, you need water. And this lake is full of it.”

Samantha felt let-down that her Grandpa had led her on this way. Did he not have a sense of honesty? She started to understand why he had always been the scientist that never made the breakthrough.

“I can see you’re disappointed,” Grandpa said. “But just think. We were running out of water. Now we have tons of it. We can boil it and then fill out bottles freely.”

Samantha and Grandpa returned to the group. The others looked expectantly at them, as if waiting for the answer, the revelation that would point the way to the lost people.

“What?” Samantha said. “You expected the lost people to be set up in tents having a picnic on the side of a well-known fishing lake? We’re getting closer, but we’re not there yet.”

The others looked solemnly at the ground.

“The truth is,” Ji said to the others, “she doesn’t have the slightest idea where these people are. They may have left a couple of sheets of music, but for all we know, they’re the folky little songs of a forest dwelling people who disappeared long ago.”

Samantha wasn’t sure how to respond, so she just shook her head back and forth. She was close. She could feel it. But she hadn’t quite figured out the mystery, and there was no telling what she would need to do to figure it out.

“Should we walk around the lake a few times, perhaps?” Ji said, sneering. “Maybe someone could climb a tall tree and look out for them. Or perhaps we just need to be quiet and we’ll be able to hear them.”

Harr stepped up. “Look, it’s getting dark. We should break camp here tonight and get some rest. We’ve covered twenty miles today.”

The others agreed and began setting up tents.

After the tents were set up and they ate dinner, Samantha zipped herself up in her sleeping bag and tried to go to sleep. She wished she had never come on this excursion. She pulled the bag entirely up over her head and sunk deep into its warm cocoon. What was she missing? Was she crazy, hearing all of this music in her head? Maybe it was just a bunch of noise, nothing special or revelatory. Tomorrow she would confess to the group that she didn’t know where to go. She would explain that she couldn’t find the people. She would consent to any kind of fabrications Ji might want to make about finding abandoned relics of the group, suggesting that they perished. She tossed and turned in her bag, angry at herself. She thought she was more than this. She knew she had more ability than this. Instead she had looked like a fool, traipsing all over the woods like a lost fairy.

At about 2 am, she couldn’t sleep, so she unzipped the tent and slumbered over to the glowing embers of the evening fire. A thick log still burned with a glowing red base. She sat on a rock next to the fire, looking at the embers. She decided to take the two maps out of her backpack. She looked at the good map for a while, imagining the forest song play in her head a while. She hummed it a bit, softly so as not to wake the others up. She looked up at the night sky, the twinkling dots in the sky. Unlike the night before, the stars didn’t appear unusual. But so far removed from the city, they still filled the sky.

After humming the tune for a while, it took on a life of its own, and then she could just sit back and listen to the music rather than consciously imagining it. The song had begun to cycle through its rhythm and melody all by itself.

Somewhat reluctantly, she then took out the cursed map and began to sing its melody. It was hard to keep two songs separately in her head. The cursed tune wanted to win out, but she didn’t let it dampen out the other song. She hummed the curse softly, and then alternated back to the forest song, humming it. Then she hummed the cursed song, and then the forest song, and back and forth she went until she summoned both songs to an equal level. They started to dance around each other, their tunes intermingling until they blended together into a new song, just like the night before. She felt a new glow in her mind, a warm feeling. It almost seemed like a new pathway had formed, pushing and pulling signals across two boundaries that had been previously disconnected.

With the blended tune playing in her head, Samantha looked up at the night sky. Just as before, the twinkling dots grew to larger orbs, twinkling in all different colors. The night sky and air also reverberated in multi-colored swirls, the night wind following the rhythms and patterns of the song. But this was it — no signal about where to go, no indication of the lost people. Samantha stood up and walked around. She closed her eyes and focused inward, and then opened them again. Nothing.

And then she glanced down at the map, still in her hand. To her surprise, the notes were no longer black figures on white paper. The notes were multi-colored as well. But rather than simply a swirl of color, there was a clear path of color, a red color. The notes had many different colors, blue, green, yellow, red, brown, purple, gold, beige, black, orange, and more. But unlike the orbs in the sky, there was an unmistakable pattern that formed from the color notations. Green notes outlined what appeared to be a forest boundary. Blue notes outlined the lake they were currently camping at. And red notes formed a dotted line that angled past the lake, toward a valley between two mountains in the distance. The red line indicated a path. It wasn’t a straight line. It curved a bit, mostly around the lake and other terrain, but it pointed unmistakably toward the distant mountain valley. At the end of the red line was a large purple dot.

Eureka, she thought. She took out a pencil and sketched the color lines of the map. She penciled in the route they should take.

After carefully noting the direction shown on the map, she pressed on her head to extinguish the song, but it didn’t want to go away. It continued playing about in her mind, encouraging her emotions with boldness. The music cleared her thoughts and made her feel invincible at the same time. She lingered near the campfire, wondering what to do.

Why bring along this group after all, she wondered? She didn’t want to bring Ji into the lost people. It might be better to check it out herself, to make sure it was safe to introduce outsiders. What if she led the others to the lost people, and some tragedy befell them? Granted, Ji would be outnumbered, so this would be unlikely, but suppose he had poison or some other means of destroying the people. She didn’t want this to happen. Besides, the music inside her filled her with boldness and courage. Apart from the safety of either group, she simply didn’t need them.

She carefully zipped up her bag, which was propped up by the door of the tent. She laced up her boots, put on her backpack, and quietly headed down the trail toward the distant valley. About 30 feet outside the camp, she paused and looked back. All was silent, the embers of the fire still glowing. The song in her head had faded, and the night colors returned to black. It was dark, the unknown. But she wasn’t afraid. This was her destiny, her reunion with her ultimate purpose. She smiled briefly, and then headed down the trail into the night.

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