The sounds of the vortex whirling about me went on and on – even after the feeling of movement stopped. After a minute or so, I opened my eyes. It was pitch-black dark, we were still, but the noise continued. I was confused. Considering that the only thing I could see was darkness and something even darker directly in front of me, this was perfectly reasonable.
Something tugged on my hand, and I realized that it must be the Skink. I let him pull me sideways, and the darker part of the darkness in front of me was replaced by plain old night-time with no moon darkness. I put out a hand and felt rough bark in front of where I had been standing.
“Skink, where are we?” I asked plaintively. The whooshing noise continued, but since the air here was thick with moisture and a bit salty, I had an idea about what might be causing it.
“We’re at the edge of his kingdom.” Skink was talking in a low voice, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why; the noise of what had to be an ocean would drown out almost anything.
“Lovely. If I could see where I was going,” and here I tried to take a step forward, only to find my feet catching in heavy undergrowth, some of which had thorns on it, “we might be able to get closer than the edge.”
“It’ll be light soon. Come on over here, there’s a log to sit and wait on.”
I let the Skink lead me to a log that was more rot than wood. As soon as I sat down, moisture bled through the seat of my jeans. Skink hopped up beside me and scooted close.
“Just sit here for a while. It’s nearly dawn. Listen, you can hear the birds start to wake up.” Skink sounded very pleased about this.
I wasn’t. I’m not a morning person in the best of times – never have been, and can’t see it happening. All it did was remind me that caffeine would be nice. I said as much.
The Skink snorted. “Yeah, we need to talk about that. Going a bit heavy on the caffeine lately, aren’t you?”
“Maybe. I’m still sleeping just fine, though.”
He just sighed, shook his head and then sat there silently.
I sat there silently, too, wondering where we could be and if I’d ever find my muse again, or if the Skink was leading me on a wild goose chase.
The birds were tuning up for the morning, and the intense darkness was being replaced by a grey light – although part of that was probably my eyes adjusting to the dark. I could see now that we were in a forest the likes of which I hadn’t seen since I left the South.
Big boles of live oak trees dotted the area, with heavy, grey-green curly drapes of Spanish moss hanging from their boughs. I realized that the log the Skink and I were sitting on wasn’t a fallen tree; it was a branch off one of these massive trees. The underbrush was incredibly thick – bushes, small trees, and vines all crowded every square foot with plants, and from the sounds I heard, the plants were home to myriad small creatures. It smelled damp and a bit rotten but incredibly fertile here. And it was hot already. I cringed to think what it would be like when the sun was high. I never did like heat and humidity.
The birds were growing louder and louder, competing with the sounds of the breakers from the ocean that I had yet to see. It grew lighter and lighter, and soon the Skink stood up. “This way – you should be able to see well enough now,” he said, scampering off into the underbrush.
“Skink, wait!” I called. He blended in far too well here, and I couldn’t see him when he took a step or two away from me.
He popped back into view and I could see that there was a narrow trail through the bushes and vines. I’m not narrow, so I was tugged at and scratched by branches and thorns every step of the way.
We emerged into an open area with sea grasses waving and sandy soil underfoot. The light was pale grey now, and the sky was starting to show pink at the edges. I followed Skink to a line of sand dunes, and the up to the top.
Skink was standing there waiting for me when I reached the summit and I paused beside him to look.
The view was spectacular. The sky was every color you could think of – pink, orange, yellow, purple, deep blue, and the ocean was reflecting the colors. The breakers rolled in making foamy lines, and the beach was sandy and pristine. I could see shapes that were probably shells at the high-water mark. They were far up – the tide appeared to be out right now.
The Skink started down the dune, but I said “Wait a minute,” and sat down to take off my boots. I’d just end up with them wet, or sandy, or both, and I’ve always loved the feeling of soft sand under my feet. Skink nodded in approval, and after I had the laces of my boots tied together and dangling from my back pack, we continued.
He led me right down to the water’s edge, and I stopped again to roll up my pant cuffs. The water was cool and refreshing, and I was startled to notice that it was crystal clear.
The Skink kept right on going, out into the breakers. “SKINK!” I shouted, and he floundered around to look at me.
“Oh, I forgot – you can’t just walk out there, can you?” he asked, bobbing there like the driftwood he resembled.
“No, not so much. I can swim, but only a reasonable distance, and I certainly can’t walk along the bottom.”
I had to wait until a wave rolled over him and he bobbed up closer to me to hear his answer. “Um…blub….Sorry. I’ll go and fetch the king, shall I? Glub….You’ll need his permission and his help to go through his kingdom to the next portal. Glurp.” It took several waves for him to finish what he was saying, and by that time he had been washed back up beside me.
“That would be fine. I’ll wait here. Maybe I can find some interesting shells.”
The Skink nodded and took off again, diving under the waves. He was out of sight almost immediately.
I wandered up and down the shore, exploring. It was teeming with life of all sorts – sea birds, crabs, brightly colored fish in tide pools, and strange creatures that I could only guess at gazing at me from the waves.
I wasn’t bored, but I should have asked the Skink how long he was going to be gone, and if there was anything to eat or drink nearby. I didn’t want to leave the shore long enough to explore the forest since I didn’t know when he’d be back, and as the tide rolled all the way in and then started out again, I was not a happy person. I was sitting and scowling, hungry and very thirsty and more than a little sunburned, on the dry sand just above the wet area left by the high tide when he finally reappeared, riding on the crest of a wave.
I opened my mouth to chew him out but stopped when I realized he wasn’t alone. Emerging from the wave that the Skink was riding on, but totally dry, was a man wearing a crown.
He bowed to me, looked at me a little more closely, the turned to the Skink and scolded, “You should not have dawdled so on your way to find me, Skink! How long has she been waiting?” The Skink looked abashed and mumbled something I couldn’t hear. The king’s face grew stormy and he replied, “Supplicants in my kingdom, whether they come to me or I must needs come to them, are never treated so thoughtlessly. You of all creatures should know that!” As the Skink tried to sink through the sand with embarrassment, the king turned back to me.
Smiling, he said, “Let me rectify the situation.” He waved an arm and a pavilion appeared beside me. Beneath its awnings there was a table heaped with fruits and breads and, most importantly, carafes of water. Two chairs stood beside the table. “Please, join me?” he asked. “No one goes without in the land of the King of Cups.”