Aqua Vitae

Traveling on into that sunless region known as the Land of the Blest, the good Knight Alexander of Macedon, accompanied by 40 friends, 100 slaves, and 1,200 reliable soldiers, found a misty waste uncrossed by any path or track, and decided that there the tents should be pitched. On the following day he took a thousand armed men and left in search of the end of the world. Those remaining in camp grew bored and restless in his long absence, and wandered the countryside for diversion.

One morning two soldiers stumbled upon a pool at the foot of a cliff surrounded by clusters of tall poppies with luminous purple petals such as they had never seen before. The water of this hidden pond was perfectly still, of an iridescent blue so deep that after looking at it for more than a moment neither of them could be sure if his eyes were open or closed. Across its placid surface shimmered wisps of a silvery mist that in the intricacies of its sinuous coils suggested brief glimpses of long-deserted palaces, voluptuous gardens overgrown, vast cavalries on the move through shadowy vistas; the merest flashes of a vanished world, imponderably old and incomparably beautiful. Awed by this equivocal vision, both knelt at the muddy bank to get a closer look. A faint whispering on the breeze like the mingled voices from far away of a multitude of departed souls lured them to dip their hands into the marvelous water. Upon doing so, each was rewarded with a warm wave of ecstasy that washed through his body: forgotten scents from early youth rushed back into memory, those of his first days in his mother’s care; and all the colors of the little village of his birth vividly burst forth in his imagination, as stirring as if both seen for the first time, and after a lifetime’s absence.

One soldier, shocked by such intense sensations, pulled his hand out, experiencing a sharp pain precisely opposite to the pleasure he had felt: a pang of regret swept over him as if in one stroke he had lost everything he ever held dear. Meanwhile, his comrade, discovering that the delightful feeling ceased almost immediately after contact, plunged his other hand, then both arms, into the dazzling blue liquid until he leaned precariously over it to the point of falling in. When his partner pulled him back by the shoulders he shrieked in agony. As acute as his pain was after withdrawing one hand, he could not imagine the torment his companion must have undergone. He released his grip, and the other dove headlong into the spectral water to disappear without casting a ripple. He thought he saw his face flicker among the silvery wisps for an instant, then evanesce into nothingness.

Terrified by what had just happened, he rushed back to camp to tell the other soldiers, many of whom ventured into the wilderness to witness the strange pond for themselves. Most were sufficiently frightened by the smart received upon pulling a cautious finger out of it, but several shared the fate of its discoverer, losing themselves in ecstatic nostalgia and diving in to leave no trace behind.

When Alexander, upon returning from his quest for the world’s end, learned of the charmed water’s fatal effect on his troops, he ordered a company of slaves with pickaxes and shovels to weaken the face of the overhanging cliff, and horsemen with chains to pull it down, burying the pool with its secret forever.

Credit: S.W. Rice

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