Juliette and Caleb wandered the woods that summer. Barefoot girl and boy, not so old when they were apart, but wisdom and learning multiplied when they were together. She of fourteen and he of fourteen minus two. She of the imagination untamed and he of the daring unbridled. Separated, the masks of angels and cherubim cloaked their natures. United, a different story could be written.
It was that summer. The one with the shaded skies and pulsing sunsets. The one with the whispering winds that twisted and danced amongst the leaves and dirt trails. The one with the searing rays and the cooling droplets, unrestrained heat and moisture mixing with wanton abandonment. The one with some of this and some of that, and even a little bit of nothing. It was a summer of unpredictability in uncountable aspects. Of course, none of this mattered to the girl of fourteen and the boy of fourteen minus two. Their ages would not allow such mindless philosophizing to corrupt the daylight of their minds when there was rebellious adventure waiting for them in the next minute. In their minds, it was a summer of youth, pure and flowing fresh from every second, every breath, sound and sight. It was a summer of the undiscovered, from the upturned bug to the rabbit chase, the giggles to the broken arm, the new haircuts to the dirty faces. All of it was somehow new. And always good.
But it was also a Chimera summer.
It was out by those woods in the back where
things happened, behind the place where the ground rose and then dipped
back down just enough to hide from the eyes of those who were much older
than fourteen. It was back by the stream and just inside the woods,
back there, out there. There was a distant land there just out of
view of those who had long ago forsaken the wonder of imagination.
It was a land that could have been fantasy if it had ever been written
down or told of to children at bedtime. Few knew about it and ever
fewer recalled ever journeying there. It was a land forgotten, found,
then forgotten again, only to be discovered and lost once more. But
that summer, the land had been stumbled upon once again.
"Cry not, fair maiden," the knight said, his hand gripping the sword which more than reached the ground. "Your honor will be restored to you again. I swear upon my father's grave."
Green eyes looked up. Though there were tears there, the knight could also see a hope that he hadn't seen before. "Then thou wilt take my father's quest upon thee?" the princess asked.
The knight adjusted his sword and knelt before the young princess. He looked up. The oversized helmet which he wore slid down and hid his eyes. Frustrated, he sighed and removed the irritating piece of armor. It hardly made a sound as it fell upon the forest leaves. The knight took the hand of the princess. His was slightly smaller than hers. "I will."
"But the beast--"
"The chimera? I will slay that three-headed fiend with my sword."
"You truly are the bravest in the kingdom, my knight!" the princess said. And with that, she threw her arms around the knight, almost knocking him over.
"Aw, Juliette! Cut it out!" Caleb the knight protested, trying to disentangle himself from the arms of the girl.
Juliette the princess giggled at the expression on Caleb's face. He was desperately trying to distance himself just out of her reach, but she was a bit stronger. "But thou art my hero, oh knight!" Juliette said. Her voice carried a well-practiced accent.
"You know how I hate that, Ju!" Caleb said, finally slipping from her grasp.
Juliette laughed harder. She slumped to the ground, the tiara of leaves adorning her head falling off, her dark hair spilling down.
"Crazy, emotional girl," Caleb muttered as he attempted to pick up his cardboard helmet before Juliette could roll over and squash it. A false frown was on his face.
Juliette simply smiled.
Caleb came over and sat by his friend. "What do you want to do now, Ju?" He looked at his cardboard sword lying on the ground. Juliette's tiara was resting on the handle.
"I don't know. Whatever you want to do, Caleb."
"Let's go dam up the stream."
"We did that yesterday, and we got yelled at by your dad, remember?"
"We could just go home. Your princess is tired."
Caleb didn't like that idea. Home was where the boring things were, and home was where you would always get caught doing things that weren't boring.
The two were quiet for a little while after that with the sounds of the birds and the trees and the winds in their ears. They closed their eyes and in the distance there were the movements of strange creatures. A unicorn perhaps, or maybe a gryphon. Only the trained ear could tell the difference. Juliette thought that maybe it was a--
Caleb's eyes flashed open. "Let's go down to The Forbidden."
The forest rustled.
Juliette's eyes remained closed, but she replied, "No way. You know we're not supposed to go down there."
Though the effect would be lost on his friend, Caleb rolled his eyes. "Please, Ju!"
"Listen, Caleb. Our parents would have a fit if they found out that we had gone down there. They've warned us never to go there! That's why we call it The Forbidden, remember?"
Caleb stared at Juliette for a minute as if to will her over to his side, but her eyes were closed, her mind conjuring thoughts unknown. He could see the dream in her closed eyes. The beauty of the undiscovered and the wonder of numerous myths were there. She smiled at something suddenly and lifted her chin slightly as a small gust of wind blew her hair back from her face. Caleb would have smiled too if he hadn't been intent on persuading his friend over to his way of thinking.
"I remember," Caleb said finally. He picked up his sword and as he donned his helmet he said, "But I'll race you anyway." And with that, he was off, running with all the speed a boy of fourteen minus two could summon.
"Hey!" Juliette said, her eyes winking open. She saw Caleb headed up the hill and back into the forest. Instantly, she was on her feet and racing after him, only slowing to snatch her tiara from the ground. "Caleb, hold on a second! Wait up!"
"What's the matter, Ju?" Caleb taunted over his shoulder. "Can't catch me?"
Juliette didn't know if she could. Caleb was fast. "You'd better hope not, Caleb! You're gonna get us both in trouble!"
Caleb laughed the laugh of youth and tried to keep his helmet from flying off his head while dodging the low hanging branches and the poison oak patches. The forest had begun to thin, the trees becoming farther apart, more of the sky revealing itself.
"Just wait till I catch up with you!" Juliette yelled ahead, white dress threatening to tangle her legs.
Somehow he managed to draw his sword without slowing down. It waved above his head. "I must face the chimera before the setting of the sun, my princess."
"You're gonna have a lot more to worry about than some old chimera!"
Off in the distance, a tree crashed to the ground.
And suddenly they had arrived. The trees were gone now, and only the wide expanse of The Forbidden was stretched out before them. Long and twisting, the narrow gorge sliced its way through the forest, virtually daring the surrounding trees to violate its edges.
Caleb stood at the edge, his hands at his sides, sword tip touching the ground. Juliette caught up, tiara in hand, and slumped to her knees beside him, hair wild and tangled. Caleb's helmet lay nearby.
"It's so deep," Caleb said with wonder.
Juliette looked up, breathing hard, wisps of hair partially obscuring her vision. Caleb's eyes were wide, intently moving, jerking to take in all the adventure of the moment. Juliette could see the carefree in his gentle smile and the tempting lure of mystical islands. She suppressed her growing urge to smile at him. "Caleb, we've got to go back."
"I wonder how far down it goes?" Caleb said.
"Caleb, listen to me."
"We should go down there and check it out."
And then Juliette was standing up, blocking Caleb's view of the gorge. "Caleb!"
Caleb locked eyes with her for a second. In that second, she knew what was coming. "My princess, the chimera must be slain."
Juliette sighed, placed her tiara on her head, and smoothed out her clothes. She held her chin up high and before her knight could react, she grabbed his shoulders and pulled him close. Caleb found fierce eyes and a soft voice nearer than was comfortable. Juliette spoke slowly. "There...is...no...chimera."
A slight tremor shook the ground.
"We made him up! He doesn't exist except in our minds! The time for pretending is over, Caleb, so cut it out!"
A look of hurt appeared in Caleb's eyes. "Okay, Ju."
"We've gotta go," Juliette said, releasing Caleb. Her words were coming out harsher than she wanted them to.
Caleb turned his head away, hiding his eyes, and Juliette knew that he was blinking away some tears. Her resolve melted at once. She sighed, knowing what she was going to do. Caleb looked up as her hand touched his shoulder.
"Caleb, I'm sorry. We can take a quick look I guess."
"Really?" The sadness was fading fast.
"Yes, as long as we're careful, and as long as we don't get caught. And we can't stay too long either."
"Trust me. I'm your knight remember?" There was a mischievous grin there, and it held a cardboard sword.
Juliette the princess smiled at that, and raised an eyebrow. "Truly, thou art my knight. But you have not yet vanquished the chimera."
Something in the forest breathed.
Caleb the knight drew himself up to his full height. "Then come with me, my princess, for today the chimera dies by my hand!"
The ground shifted.
Juliette felt the tremor throughout her entire body, but Caleb had his helmet back on and was standing at the edge of the gorge, so she followed him.
"Down, down, into the beast's foul lair," Caleb recited with muffled voice as he took a step down. Pebbles dropped, miniature avalanches tumbling down the steep slope.
"I don't know about this," Juliette said, feeling her courage wavering. "Caleb, be careful!"
Caleb took a few more steps down, and looked up. The helmet did its best to hide his smile, but it could not. His hand came up, held out to Juliette.
"I don't think so, Caleb. I can't go down there."
"I don't think it's safe. After all, the chimera's down there."
The sun went black suddenly, but Caleb didn't seem to notice.
"I will protect you, my princess."
And then Juliette sensed something behind her--a hideous form bearing a rotting stench and pointy teeth. She began to turn, but a thunderous roar hit her like a physical blow, knocking her to her knees. She held her head low, not wanting to look up and see. She heard Caleb scream her name, and then a green, scaly foot filled her vision, streaking down only inches away. Shaking, but not able to move, she lifted her head.
The chimera was a horror to behold. It was in the form of a serpent, but two gnarled legs protruded from its body, ending in three-toed feet. Each toe sprouted a sharply curving talon. Farther up on its vile form, two arms snaked outward, claws opening and closing, lusting to tear the air. But the chimera was truly an abomination, for it had not one neck but three. Each neck bore a different head: one a lion, one a dragon, and one a goat. The chimera's body curved majestically upward, rising just above the nearby trees. The three heads darted and hissed, twisting and slithering to an ancient rhythm. The chimera was the nightmare of the waking world, a forgotten fiction forgotten no more.
The chimera was real.
Juliette's mind denied the situation, but Caleb was calling her name over and over. It was an endless loop echoing, and seemingly so far away. The chimera was even closer now. Its three heads were lowered, only a few feet away. Juliette found herself looked upon by six eyes, each holding a stare that could not be returned, but she also found that she could not avert her eyes. Each stared at her in turn. In the eyes of the lion she saw a white rose, trampled and stained. In the eyes of the dragon she saw a beam of forest sunlight illuminating a cardboard sword. But in the eyes of the goat she saw only her reflection, dark and engulfed, clear at first, but then fading to be replaced by a glimmering princess haloed with green leaves, palms pressed to a face hidden by dark hair.
The goat's eyes went dark, and Juliette knew that the summer had come to an end. She raised a little, taking a step back, eyes fixed to the chimera's thick body. Behind her, Caleb screamed her name again as the chimera lunged and she found herself recoiling back, back a few more steps, and suddenly she was falling backward into the gorge. The chimera's roar of frustration and triumph was in her ears.
As she fell, Juliette screamed, tumbling downward into the depths of The Forbidden all the while. Down, down she fell until she could fall no more, another fantasy princess swallowed by a forgotten land.
Helpless, Caleb watched as Juliette fell into The Forbidden's open maw, and the sound that he heard coming from his mouth had never been heard before. It was anguish, pure and raw. Molten agony and fiery loss unleashed. Blindly, Caleb climbed up to the top of the gorge and charged the chimera, sobbing and yelling unintelligible words of rage, cardboard sword raised to strike. The chimera roared, and Caleb yelled, and as the sword came down he realized that the scream of the chimera was in fact his own. The chimera wavered as the sword passed through its body. It shimmered for a second, and through his tears, Caleb watched as the beast flickered once and then disappeared, vanishing from a world soon to be forgotten.
The forest was silent.
Caleb walked over to the edge of The Forbidden, numb and without senses, brave and daring no longer. On his hands and knees he could peer down. Down there could be seen only a hint of Juliette's white dress. A beautiful princess had been slain--untamed imagination erased in a spark's time.
Caleb the knight stood. He stood with broken helmet and torn sword. After a moment he began to run, into the forest, back to that dirt path which would lead him home. As he ran, he shouted over and over, "The chimera did it!"