Jusan’s first hint of the proximity of the falls came early one morning, just after waking. He lay wrapped in his poncho, staring into empty space, not remembering where he was nor recognizing why he was surrounded by swirling banks of mist. From somewhere, some indeterminate point, came the sound of a vast tumult of water.
Jusan raised his head. The fog lay so thick upon the land that the trees appeared as dark silhouettes, silent sentinels watching and standing guard, waiting for some event destined never to occur. The pearly nothingness of the fog infected the world with a sense of unreality, with the baffling incoherence of a dream. Only when he felt the hard ground beneath him and the dull ache which pervaded all of his limbs was Jusan convinced that he was awake.
He cupped one hand to his ear, listening. The sound of falling water was unmistakable. He had waited so long for this moment, had endured so much. He laced up his boots with stiff, unwieldy fingers, breakfasted on a moldy pear. Not even the gloom of the forest or the chill drizzle could sap his spirits or dampen his sense of anticipation.
The fog never lifted in all the long course of that day. It filled the air with a ghostly radiance which rendered any measurement, whether of time or of distance, meaningless. The hours melded into a seamless, steady stream of time which stretched unbroken into infinity.
Toward afternoon Jusan encountered a lone pilgrim, an old man, or so Jusan reckoned him to be. He wore a hood over his head which left visible a great beak of a nose and eyes that stared out upon the world with fierce contempt.
“Tell me, grandfather,” Jusan addressed him. “Have you come from the Falls of Imoletta – and how far are they, pray?”
“How far?” A bead of moisture gathered on the tip of the old man’s nose, hung suspended there. “You are not the first to ask me that. I can only answer as I answered all the others: that would depend.”
“Depend?” Jusan was indignant. “What do you mean, that would depend?”
“The distance is relative. For some, it is so far and so remote that they shall never reach the falls. They might walk and walk and walk and yet find themselves no nearer. They hope, in spite of everything, but it is a false hope. They delude themselves.” The old man paused, smiled. “Others will find it a long, arduous slog and, arriving, conclude it not worth the effort. It is, as I said, relative.”
“But they are close by, surely? Tell me it is so.”
“I can hardly say.” The old man’s eyes were shot through with uncertainty. “When was I there? A day? A month? Years, perhaps. I remember the roar of the falls tumbling down, a sheer vertical wall of water which ascended three hundred meters. Up it climbed, into the clouds, into the very heavens it seemed, beautiful beyond all reckoning. I thought: It must be a dream, surely. It could only be a dream.
“I stood there an entire day, two days perhaps, transfixed and unable to move. Nothing compares to the splendor of Imoletta. Finally I waded out into the pool at the bottom. It was odd but for the first time in months I no longer felt that I was wet. The water is such, you see, that it imparts no discomfort. It washes over the skin with the lightest of touches, with the effect of air, so pure and unsullied is it. It was a delicate shade of emerald, as clear and crystalline as a precious stone. It is blessed water, just as the holy book declares.
“I dove beneath the surface, over and over, holding my breath. At length I retrieved a coin of copper. In its place I left a golden thaler. It was a fair exchange – gold for copper. Or so I thought at the time. In the event it proved not to be so. The reality was quite different: I had taken much and rendered but little in return. It was an account destined to be settled later.
“Look!” The old man peeled back the sleeves of his jacket. His forearms had a bleached, waterlogged appearance. He flexed his hand and the flesh seemed to grow translucent, to shed its solidity. It acquired the appearance of a stream rushing through a deep defile, turbulent and frothy. The old man threw back his head and laughed – and his laughter was bitter and mocking, filled with self-loathing. Then the illusion was gone, vanished, like mist under a rising sun.
The old man clutched his jacket to his chest. Water dripped from his hood. “Imoletta and I, as you can see, have become one. We share the same essence. I am bound to the falls in a manner which can never be sundered or undone. Such is the fate of all who seek Imoletta. Such, too, will be your fate.” The old man slipped past Jusan. Within half a dozen steps he had disappeared into the glistening wet canopy of the forest.
“You lie, old man!” Jusan called after him. “You wish only to frighten me.”
Jusan peered into the fog. The falls were so close that he could almost smell the water. The next bend, the next dip in the trail and he would be there, surely. The old man’s claim that he was bound to the falls – what was it but the ramblings of a lost soul.
Jusan pressed onward. Only a little further and he might, at long last, plunge into the beautiful, emerald waters of Imoletta, whose siren song filled his senses.
A year passed – and Jusan reckoned it as a day. A lifetime vanished – and Jusan recognized it not nor lamented its disappearance.
Always, the falls lay just up ahead.