Jaime and Emily run from the house of the horrible witch.
They run between the posts of the candy-cane fence. They squirm across the mud, pausing to snip off bits of barbed licorice. It is tasty but sharp, like a porcupine.
They hold their breath when passing through the soda swamp. The fizz won’t make them giddy!
Just past the swamp, the very large bear trees them.
Emily is pessimistic. “The bear! It will grind us up in its worrible jaws!”
“It’s a good bear,” hopes Jaime.
The very large bear rattles the tree.
“Bear!” calls Jaime. “Go away! This truculent attitude is unbecoming!”
“Yeah!” says Emily.
Jaime’s suggestion and Emily’s assent give the very large bear pause. It lowers itself heavily to the ground. It ponders aloud, its words sonorous and rich. “I do not wish to appear unbecoming. But it is my intention to grind you children up in my horrible jaws. Having conceived this intention, how may I pursue it in a mannerly fashion? The difficulty is profound. My heart is stirred with sympathy for you. But my intention: I cannot forsake it!”
“It’s not fair,” says Emily. “I got grunt up by a bear last time.”
Jaime is startled. “You did?”
“It ate off my arm,” Emily says. “I bled on ev’ybody.”
“I’m sorry,” says Jaime. “That must have been just horrid!”
“I was in shock,” says Emily, wisely. “So it didn’t hurt so much at first. Then I screamed a lot. So I said to myself, ‘Emily, you’re screaming so much, it’s probably the horrible pain.’ And it was!”
“Wow,” says Jaime.
The very large bear comes to a resolution. It rises up on its hind legs and thumps the tree again.
“A bear shows its honor with persistence!” the very large bear declares.
Emily takes out a long strand of horse’s hair. She cups it in her hands. Jaime looks at her.
“Really? Now?” Jaime says.
“If it were a small cute bear,” says Emily, “then I would try to tame it with my niceness. If it were a normal-sized bear then we could run away. If it were a large bear, then you could defeat it with your trickery! But this is a very large bear.”
Jaime assesses the very large bear.
“That’s so,” he agrees.
The very large bear shakes the tree with its paws. “Your discussion does not address my underlying imperative,” it grumbles.
Roan horse, roan horse,
Ride east! Ride east!
I’m scared by bears!
The horse hair falls from her hands. The setting sun burns and roils red. A shaft of sunlight strikes like a dagger into the glade, and the air is filled with hoofbeats.
A chestnut horse runs past.
“Now!” says Emily.
Jaime pouts, because he’d wanted to be the one to shout, “Now!”
Emily jumps. Jaime jumps. The horse veers on a zigzag path, faster in its course than a bolt of lightning. Each of the children lands on its back, and it carries them away.
“Haa,” sighs the very large bear. It sits back on its haunches. “I think that proves very well who is the unbecoming one in this exchange. Horses! The very idea!”
Then the children are gone.
They ride hard. They ride far. But when the sun passes below the horizon, the horse sets them down at the edge of the fire lake and gallops away.
“We shall have to walk around it,” says Emily.
“Or swim,” says Jaime.
Emily pokes the lake with her finger. It singes her lightly, and she pulls her finger back. “Or walk!”
Jaime looks nervous.
“It can’t hurt that badly to swim in a lake of fire,” Jaime argues.
Emily sits down. She makes horrible faces at him. Then she makes funny faces at him. Then she makes horrible faces again. Soon Jaime is sweating under the strain.
“. . . Fine,” says Jaime. He begins stomping around the lake.
The lake roils. Its voice of fire says, “You had been wiser before, Jaime.”
“Don’t tempt me,” says Jaime. “If you tempt me, maybe I’ll jump in. Then I’ll burn up! Then who’s happy?”
“That’s your human standards,” mulls the lake of fire. “But consider it from the perspective of an immortal lake of fire that nobody ever swims in.”
It roils and casts its foam of ashes onto the shore.
“Looking at it from your perspective,” Jaime agrees, “everything in life is transient and full of the pity of things.”
“Worrible pity,” Emily agrees. “Like, that ant.”
They stop and look at the ant for a while.
Eventually, they both sigh sadly and walk on.1
“Why would you want to swim?” Emily asks. “I mean, ‘sides the lake tempting you?”
“There’s a tree,” says Jaime. “Around this way. It was planted with a poisoned seed that loved nothing better than hurting people. So it grew fruits that have a poisoned magic. I ate them once, and I swelled up like an urchin.”
“Oh no,” says Emily.
“I’m afraid that if I see that tree again, I’ll eat another fruit! That’s why I don’t want to walk around the lake.”2
“It doesn’ seem likely,” says Emily.
“It really hurt,” says Jaime. “A lot!”
Jaime looks so nervous that Emily has to touch his arm. Then Emily thinks for a bit. Then she takes out another horse hair.
“What?” says Jaime. “No, it’s stupid!”
“Then it’s my stupid,” says Emily.
Black horse, black horse,
Born in night!
Ride down! Ride down!
Bad fruit—no bite!
There is darkness all around them. Then there are hoofbeats. Then a coal-black horse stands beside them.
“I am glad that you did not wait until Jaime had already bitten the fruit,” says the horse. “For then I would have had to gallop through all the night and all the day, even though that means my death, to bring him past the teeth and the hooks, around the gap and under the blades, over the hills and over the dales, to the healing stones at last.”
“See?” says Emily smugly. “Preemptive medicine!”
“Fine,” says Jaime. “I’ll ride.”
So Jaime mounts up on the horse, and Emily too. And when they reach the place of the poisoned fruit, the horse begins to gallop, leaving Jaime reaching fruitlessly after his prize.
After a while, the horse slows down.
“Now we must move slowly,” says the horse. “For it is dark here, and we may lose our way.”
There are trees and shadows all around them as they reach the place of teeth. And Jaime is shivering.
“What is it?” Emily says.
“It’s the night horse sickness,” says Jaime.
The horse moves swifter now, as the teeth bite and gnash.
“We should get down,” says Jaime. “We should get off. For I feel the night fever in me. I feel it rising.”
“Not in all the teeth!” says Emily.
Jaime looks at the teeth.
“Hurry,” he says. He wraps his muddy jacket tightly around him. He huddles close in. And Emily holds on behind him.
And the horse runs.
“Hurry,” says Jaime.
Then they are in the place of hooks, looming and dangling from the trees.
“Hurry,” mumbles Jaime. But now the night horse sickness is in its full flush, and his cheeks are red, and his eyes are white, and he knows nothing save the ride. And he is not speaking to Emily but to the horse, saying, “Hurry! Faster! Ride faster!”
And he hunches low, and Emily hunches low, as the horse reaches its full stride, there in the darkness of the night, like a swift-running river, but faster than the wind.
“Whuf!” says Emily, suddenly.
She has been caught on a hook. Her coat dangles from the hook, just like in a laundromat, and Emily dangles with it. The shock of her sudden stop takes all the breath out of her as the horse gallops on.
There is a pause.
“Whups!” amends Emily.
She can hear Jaime in the distance shouting the words of the night horse sickness, “Faster! Hurry! Ride straight! Ride hard!”
She knows that the horse will cast Jaime off at sunrise; and the first murky fingers of that light are cresting over the hills.
But distantly she hears his shouts, and she thinks of the gap that lies ahead.
So as she dangles there from the hook she takes the third and last of her horse hairs in her hands.
Ride west! Ride west!
To catch the night!
There is a glinting and a glimmering. There are hoofbeats. Then, shining in the night, the palomino is there.
“This is a fine predicament,” observes the palomino.
“I can take off my coat by myself,” says Emily. She does so. She lands on the palomino. “Yay!”
“It’s not good for young ladies to be out at night without their coats,” worries the palomino.
“Jaime’s riding for the gap,” says Emily. “So that’s a higher oblation!”
The palomino tosses its head. “Hold on tight, then,” it says.
And it begins to run.
There is a mist over the gap when Emily sees Jaime again. The night horse is tiring as the dawn gets close, but its hoofbeats are still like the fury of a storm. Jaime is flushed and clinging tight. Emily shouts, “The gap! The gap!”
But Jaime cannot hear.
“The gap!” Emily shouts. The night horse flicks its ear. It is still too far to parse her words.
And Jaime cannot hear.
Then she is upon him, then she is reaching for him, but it is too late. The night horse is blinded by the mist and by the coming dawn. It is galloping out over the gap, and its horseshoes cannot grip on air. It tumbles. It falls, and Emily falling after.
In many places, they would have struck the stones. They would have rolled down the endlessly steep surface of the gap, bouncing on its hard implacable stone, until they hit the knife teeth of the dried riverbed below.
But they do not. Here, they do not. Their fall is a blur, and they come to rest like leaves upon a lake, and when they wake in the morning light they shall feel no pain.
For this is not one of the Lands of Suffering through which they travel,
But a Land where Suffering is Only Remembered.3
1. This is a horrible but very obscure pun.
2. The path around the lake only had one direction.
3. Lands where suffering is entirely forgotten, it should be understood, are not kind places for children like Emily and Jaime.