by Daniel Errico
Art by Shivani Kaushik
by Daniel Errico
Art by Shivani Kaushik
Gemma was only five minutes away from her parents’ hut, but the jungle had already taken on a different personality. It was thicker. The trees had grown taller. The ti plants shaded the green forest a sinister red. There was no doubt about it- the jungle was more dangerous here, and Gemma loved it. As a baby, Gemma’s parents had taken her on their expeditions over mountains, deserts, and vast seas. It was exciting, unpredictable, and deeply irresponsible. Now that they had settled down in the tropical rainforest, Gemma had to devise intricate plans just to sneak out for morning adventures.
This particular plan hinged on the help of Milo, her ring-tailed lemur. Years of mischief, tom-foolery, and Gemma’s influence had helped Milo develop skills that other lemurs would give theirs rings to have themselves, were such a transaction to be made possible. And on this morning, Milo was lying in Gemma’s bed, wearing a wig made of straw, the same sandy blonde color as Gemma’s hair, snoring loudly. In a stroke of genius, they had even braided it into pigtails to match her style. They tried adding a pair of her old glasses but those kept sliding down his face, given that she had a human-sized head, and his was irreparably lemur-sized.
“I swear, her snoring is getting worse and worse,” said Gemma’s dad from the breakfast table, sipping on a warm tea.
Gemma’s mom raised an eyebrow from across her book.
“It doesn’t even sound human!” he continued.
“You’re exaggerating a little, don’t you think, dear?” Gemma’s mom said.
But he was not. And had either of them walked one room over to check on their daughter, they may have shouted, and woken up a little, groggy primate with straw pigtails.
A short walk away, Gemma brushed past a prickly bush and followed a small break in the twisted liana vines. She came to a wall of leaves and grew excited at the sound of movement ahead. She often felt like she could sense when adventure was near. In fact, she felt it almost every single day, and for the past year, she had been wrong roughly every single time. So, despite the eagerness to find something remarkable, her shock was genuine when she brushed the leaves aside. In a small clearing, no larger than a rock pond, was a black jaguar.
She bravely, confidently, froze.
As she rubbed the condensation from her glasses, Gemma spotted a small mammal underneath the jaguar’s paw. Further rubbing led to further clarity, and she recognized the animal as a golden mole. Both rare and beautiful. A fear rushed in that, if she didn’t act soon, the mole would be eaten or crushed under the jaguar’s leg.
“Oh, Bramblerot!” she whispered.
Half thinking, half not-at-all-thinking, Gemma reached into the brown satchel at her waist and found a small piece of suede. Wrapped tightly inside was her favorite brass bell. It was a dented, old gift from an even older grandma, and Gemma never left it behind when she ventured out. Normally, she reserved for it occasions that required making a lot of noise, but an emergency like this called for something much more risky.
Stepping forward stealthily, Gemma used her other hand to free a thin purple ribbon from her hair, turning her pigtails into a pigtail. She pressed the suede against the bell tightly to make sure that it didn’t attract any unwanted attention. A few paces ahead, and completely unaware of Gemma, the jaguar lifted his paw up for just a moment then pinned the mole down again. Gemma allowed herself a quick and disapproving scowl then focused on the task at hand. She opened the cloth and tied the ribbon around an opening in the brass bell. Then, with the delicacy of a snowflake on a silk napkin at afternoon tea with the Queen, Gemma tied the other end of the ribbon in another knot.
She slid backwards through the leaves and grabbed the closest suitable rock. As the jaguar leaned down with his teeth bared, Gemma tossed it towards the dense jungle to her left.
Without a moment to spare, the jaguar lifted his head, and whipped his body around.
And that’s when he heard a jingle. A strange, suspiciously close, jingle.
He whipped back the other way and heard the jingle again, but all he saw was jungle. He tried prowling around the clearing, looking for the source, but again saw only jungle. The jingles came faster, one after the other. The mole looked on in surprise as the frustration grew. Then, in the type of overreaction that jaguars are known for, he leapt into the deep brush next to him, looking for anything to attack.
Gemma immediately rushed in to grab the wounded golden mole and quickly hid behind the nearest tree. The jaguar ran back into the clearing and looked around with a vicious stare. As soon as he took another step, the bell, which Gemma had fastened securely to his tail, jingled again. Having lost his target, and plagued by the mysterious jingle, the jaguar picked a direction, almost at random, and charged deep into the dark tropical rainforest. When the jingles finally grew quiet, Gemma laid the golden mole down.
“Don’t worry. He’s gone,” she said, petting its head softly. “And he won’t be sneaking up on anyone for a while,” she added with a smile.
The mole wheezed out a tiny giggle then shook out its fur. It looked up at Gemma for a long moment, then scrunched its nose. Without a sound, it dug a hole in the soft earth and dove down.
Gemma watched in awe as it worked its way out of sight at impressive speed. She peered down to catch one last glimpse, but its little feet had disappeared in a flurry of dirt and dust. Gemma looked around. She had maybe ten minutes before her parents would try to wake her up and then find her missing. It was time to head back. Besides, she had found more than enough adventure for one day. Best for her to leave some for the other young explorers out there.
Carefully listening for the jingle of her favorite bell, Gemma weaved through the thick brush until it loosened and gave way to the path that she had personally made, stomp by stomp, over the better part of a year. She was almost to the hut when a small patch of dirt a few steps ahead of her started to move and shake. Approaching slowly, she leaned down and saw the furry face of the golden mole pop up to greet her. It scurried out of its hole and looked Gemma up and down. Gemma waved hello instinctively, as a matter of manners, and with no idea what else to do.
The mole reached into the dirt, pulling out an instrument that Gemma had seen many times before. It was a dark blue compass, set on a weathered chain. Gemma grabbed it with two curious hands, turning it over and around to inspect. The compass itself was older than her bell, she imagined, and built with much greater care. Then she reminded herself that her bell was now a jaguar accessory, and no longer hers at all. By the time she was done thinking, the mole had hopped back down its hole, leaving the compass behind. Gemma decided then and there that golden moles were strange creatures with strange habits. It’s worth noting, however, that this was an unfair generalization and would only serve her poorly.
Later that day, Gemma sat at the kitchen table and watched her parents rush around the hut.
The compass was hanging around her neck, unnoticed. She had never seen them so animated as they gathered their belongings and shouted out questions and commands to each other. It was on this day that they had revealed they’d be going away on a trip of indeterminate length. Without her. Milo looked up at Gemma and cocked his head to the side. She patted her shoulder, the signal that it was okay for him to climb up and sit. Deftly, he swung up her torso and rested. Most times he would wrap only his tail around her neck, but today was different. He hugged her whole head with every limb he had.
“Gemma,” said her Mom. “Come and take a walk with me to the waterfall. I have something to tell you.”
Fifteen years later, Gemma was standing at the helm of the the Mystic Reed. The sun lit up a bright blue mid-day sky. The saltwater sprayed her glasses with every dip of the bow. After years of sailing the open ocean, she found it refreshing. Milo, being a land mammal in both nature and disposition, found it annoying. He had resigned himself to the squawks of seagulls, the smell of barnacles, and the fact that every single thing on their boat was constantly wet. But, the saltwater stung his nostrils, and that ruffled him the wrong way. He had no choice, though, on such an important mission, but to brave the onslaught from atop Gemma’s shoulder and help with their search.
Gemma peered forward over the right side of the boat, which is called the starboard, as her uncle had taught her soon after her parents left. Then she peered over the left side of the boat, which is called the port. She always remembered which was which by reminding herself that ‘left’ and ‘port’ have the exact same number of letters. ‘Starboard’ and ‘right’ have an extraordinarily different number of letters, and therefore were not a part of her memorizing technique.
“I don’t see anything, Milo,” she said with a frown, wiping her glasses clean. They were speckled with saltwater again by the time she spoke again.
“That sea merchant told us the Forgotten Island would be right here!” she exclaimed.
Milo wrapped his tail around her neck and slid it down to point to the dark blue compass still hanging around her neck, slightly rusted, but otherwise intact. She opened up the cover and tapped the glass. There was a jagged silver needle laying lifeless inside, just as it always did.
Gemma looked down and sighed. “You know that thing doesn’t work. It can’t tell East from West or up from down. I need to remember exactly what that merchant said.” She began to mumble. “Across the Mossy Channel, due south of Heart Mountain, three days onward… oh what’s the use!”
Milo leapt onto the steering wheel as Gemma walked back to the stern of the boat and looked out across the water. “It’s called the Forgotten Island for a reason. It’s lost to the world!”
Her hand instinctively gripped the railing as the boat shook and shimmied. It slowed to a stop within seconds. She spun her head around to see Milo with his hands and tail in the air. This was often his pose when he wanted to make it clear that what had happened was not his fault. It was almost just as often the case that it was.
Gemma looked over the side rail again and saw a dark patch of land that hadn’t been there at last glance. It was a small oval island. They had run aground.
Milo hopped down from the steering wheel and swung over the side of the boat. Gemma’s feet found the wooden rungs on the Jacob’s ladder and stepped down to the thin shoreline.
She bent and grabbed a handful of sand. It was blue. A deep blue. And dark green as well. Mixed together, it was the exact color of the ocean.
“Remarkable,” she said, looking around. “This must be the Forgotten Island, Milo.”
Less impressed, Milo grabbed a fallen coconut from the ground and started pounding it on a nearby stone. The coconut tree it came from was one of only three trees on the island. The second was a slightly larger coconut tree with equal or better quality and sized coconuts. The third was significantly smaller than the first two, did not grow any coconuts, and was not a coconut tree. Apart from the trees, Gemma spotted a simple hut, with a frond-thatched roof, covered on all sides by vines. Next to it was the entrance to a small cave, handmade from brown stones.
Milo struck a victorious blow, splitting the coconut in two. He drank the water inside greedily then offered Gemma the other half as a snack.
“Thanks anyway, Milo,” she said. “I’d rather go check out that hut.”
Gemma couldn’t help staring into the dark mouth of the cave as she pushed in the hut’s door. It dislodged from the frame in a sloppy commotion and fell to the floor.
“Sorry…” Gemma said to no one at all as they stepped on top and entered. She had decided long ago that manners are manners whether someone is there to see them or not.
Milo finished the coconut meat and threw his shell onto the hut floor. He had decided long ago that he was a lemur and, therefore, manners did not apply.
Gemma spotted two windows and tore down the faded green vines covering them. The sunlight burst in to reveal a metal pot, suspended over a compact fire pit. She bent down and held her hands close to the wooden embers.
“It’s still warm,” she said with a suspicious tone. “Someone was here recently.” They looked around to confirm that despite the discovery, they were alone inside the hut. Milo picked his coconut shell up again and placed it on top of his head, just to be safe. Behind the pit there was a small circular table with a dusty chair pulled out. It looked to Gemma as though the seat had been dusted off by a large hand. A quick lap around the room uncovered an empty tin box and a set of clay bowls, but nothing more exciting. Gemma walked to the nearest window and stared out.
“Should’ve known that sea merchant was a liar. There’s nothing valuable here. We got hornswoggled, Milo.”
Milo looked up at her indignantly.
“Okay,” she conceded, “I got hornswoggled.”
Three weeks earlier Gemma sat at a lonely table in the shadows of Starlight Tavern, with Milo by her side. She didn’t enjoy the loud bard music or unruly patrons, but it was the best place in Harbortown to conduct the shady administrative business that came along with treasure hunting. That is to say, it was the only place that allowed the kind of people she needed to meet. Across from her sat one of those very people, known to her only as the sea merchant. He was a handsome mustachioed man with a tricorn hat, and at that moment, he had her rapt attention.
“It’s up to you,” he said with a smile and a sip of his drink. He had a smooth way of talking that made even the saltiest words come out sweet. Gemma didn’t trust him one bit. She took his words with a grain of regular-colored sand, but she was listening.
Milo stared at the merchant with the fierce protective glare that only a true friend possesses. Unbeknownst to Gemma, it had been two minute since he last blinked.
“And how do I know I can trust you?” she asked with an eyebrow raised.
The sea merchant laughed. “You don’t, friend.”
Gemma studied his smile. The lines next to his eyes. The piece of corn stuck to his teeth that, had he been a true friend, she would have mentioned to him as a courtesy.
“The price. It’s a bit steep,” she replied.
“That it is,” said the sea merchant, taking another sip. “But, this is no ordinary bounty. Through great peril I came to find it. It’s not everyday someone offers you ‘the most greatest treasure in the world’.”
Gemma’s face twisted.
“‘The most greatest treasure in the world?’ I’ve heard those words before…”
The sea merchant slammed his drink down.
“Aye, many have heard of it. None have found it.” He leaned in closer. “But I know the way.”
Gemma gave a coy smirk. “If you know the way then why don’t you go get it yourself. Surely it’s worth more than you’re asking.”
“’Tis not in the stars for me, friend. No, I’ll just stay here, safe and sound.” He reached out an open palm. “And count my coins.”
She sighed. It was the best lead she had gotten in months and, despite her concerns, she couldn’t turn it down. Besides, she was desperate for adventure, and if what the merchant said was even half true, it would be the stuff of legends.
Gemma looked to Milo and gave a nod. Without breaking his stare, Milo used his tail to lift up a pouch of coins and drop it on the table. Milo was the only lemur Gemma had ever met who had a prehensile tail, capable of gripping things, and it never ceased to amaze her. The sea merchant snatched the pouch up before the sound even hit Gemma’s ears. He took off his hat, leaned in close to cover the sides of their faces from a busy tavern, and whispered the instructions. The first rivers and channels and landmarks he mentioned were familiar, but the rest were completely foreign to her. She listened more carefully than she ever had before, repeating the words back to herself.
When he was finished, Gemma turned to Milo and gave another quick nod.
“Well, I guess that all we need to know,” she said, turning back to the sea merchant. “Thanks for…”
But the sea merchant was nowhere to be seen. Only his hat remained. Gemma and Milo were genuinely impressed by the mystique of it for a few seconds. Until they heard, “You’re welcome,” from underneath the table. The sea merchant’s hand reached up and grabbed the hat, since it was a high-quality hat, and not the kind you would leave behind for the sake of mystique.
Back inside the hut, Gemma looked out the window and sighed.
“I guess there were some red flags,” she said. Her eyes settled on the rock cave outside.
“Come on, Milo. We might as well check every nook and cranny,” she said with a shrug.
Milo squeaked as they stomped over the fallen door.
“A cranny. It’s basically the same thing as a nook,” she responded.
As Gemma and Milo walked inside the cave they carried some of the island’s blue sand with them. The entrance sloped down on a path of dark brown dirt that went on longer than either of them expected. When they reached the interior, the mid-day sun was almost completely blocked. Gemma felt around the cold walls and found a sconce holding a torch.
“Milo, flint me,” she said.
Milo reached inside the small pouch at his side and pulled out a flint stone, used for sparking flames. Swiftly, he tossed it past her open hand and hit her in the forehead. They had gotten good at starting cozy fires, but hadn’t yet perfected the handoff. In a dark cave and without any practice throws, they had almost no chance.
Gemma lit the torch and uncovered a cave of deep red stone. The flame created shadows that danced over the nooks in the side of the cave. They danced over crannies as well which, it’s worth noting, are actually an entirely different thing than nooks. What drew both of their attention, as soon as they saw it, was a wooden chest in the center. As they walked forward, its gold trim and lock shimmered in the light.
With each approaching step, Gemma noticed a peculiar thing start to happen. From around her neck, the compass began to shake. She stopped to raise it over her head and open the top. The jagged silver needle was vibrating loudly. Testing a theory, she took a step forward and the rattle increased until it filled the room.
“It’s… it’s never done this before,” she said. Milo looked up at her with wide yellow eyes. “Why would it shake now? It doesn’t even work.” Gemma carefully opened up the glass cover and grasped the needle to stop the shaking. “It’s almost like it’s not a compass at all…” She lifted her hand up and, to her surprise, removed the needle with ease.
Milo scuttled over to the lock and examined it. Excitedly, he jumped up and down. Gemma felt as though she understood what he meant. Through years of being best friends, they had developed their own kind of language, and she was rarely wrong.
“You want me to bake you a muffin, Milo?” Rarely wrong, but sometimes.
Milo scoffed and pointed at the lock.
“Ohhhh, use the needle on the lock,” she said. “Well, it looked a whole lot like your muffin dance.”
Gemma bent down and lined the needle up to the keyhole to find it was roughly the same size. With the torch in one hand, flickering wildly around the cave, she pressed the twisted needle into the lock.
“Here goes something,” she whispered.
Slowly, she turned the needle until she felt a click. The top to the chest popped open with ease. Gemma tapped her shoulder and Milo climbed up to see. She raised the torch and stared down. Inside, she saw her own face and Milo’s, distorted by a blanket of ripples. It was water. Dark ancient, water. And in the center, floating with a calmness, was a tiny boat.
Gemma had less than a moment to study it before she heard a familiar sound. One she had not heard for many years. It was the jingle of her old favorite bell.
“Oh, Bramblerot,” she said.
Somewhere inside the cave, the jingle came again. Gemma turned to see a shadowy four-legged figure growing larger. The steps were slow and deliberate. Each one was punctuated by the dragging roll of a bell along the dirt floor, swaying gracefully from a ribbon. When he came into to the light, Gemma cringed. His face had never left her, never lost its sharpness in her dreams. Milo silently slunk behind the chest, out of sight, and Gemma was thankful at least for that. She couldn’t stand the thought of him being the appetizer to a Gemma-sized main course. With nothing to lose and no better ideas in her petrified mind, she spoke.
“Hi there,” she pushed out. “I… I like your ribbon. I used to have one just like it.”
The jaguar paused to rest on his back legs and stare. Examining her face, his slim eyes opened a touch. Gemma smiled nervously. It was then, no sooner or later than Gemma’s teeth cleared her lips, that the jaguar attacked.
As he sprung towards her, he let out a growl more spine-shaking than Gemma had ever heard. They say that the fervor of a domesticated pet or long-caged beast is nothing when compared to the fierceness of a creature in the wild. Had you asked Gemma in that moment, she would certainly have agreed, and even more certainly would have wanted to discuss at a time when she was not the target of a jaguar pounce.
As luck would have it, the jaguar would never reach her. Just inches from Gemma’s face, which was scrunched up and bracing for impact, the jaguar was stopped. Sneaking in the shadows of the cave, Milo had made it to the other side just in time to reach out and grab the jaguar’s tail. But, a fuzzy tail is tough to hold onto, even for an experienced tail-grabber like Milo, and his grip slid all the way down to the dangling bell. The purple ribbon stretched and strained from the tension. Gemma grabbed the small ship from inside the chest and ducked away towards Milo, just as the bell and ribbon snapped off of the jaguar’s tail. The bell fell to the dusty ground with a jingle, but Milo clutched the ribbon in his hand. The jaguar’s momentum caused him to fly forward and slam into the open lid of the chest, then down into the water with a splash. Gemma looked back briefly to see the lid fall down over his head.
They rushed out onto the miniature beach and headed straight for the Mystic Reed. Gemma looked down at Milo and got the nod she needed. She handed him the tiny ship, then picked Milo up and swung him over the boat’s rail. This move had been mastered well beyond the flint toss, as hasty escapes were commonplace for a pair of treasure hunters like them. Milo instinctively let out the sail for the reverse wind to push them off the shore. Gemma took two steps up the Jacob’s ladder and held on as the boat cleared the shallows.
The jaguar raced out of the cave, sopping wet, straight towards them, but came to a stop at the frothy shoreline. All he could do was sit on the blue sand and snarl and growl at the receding boat. Now that Gemma and Milo were both safely on board and protected by the waves between them, they found the jaguar slightly less intimidating than moments ago. Milo handed Gemma her purple ribbon, then steered the boat into the open ocean. Gemma tied the ribbon back into her hair and shouted off the stern in the back of the boat.
“Sorry we snagged your tail and shot you into a chest of water! And sorry for taking the tiny ship you were guarding! And…” Gemma turned back to Milo. “This is weirdest apology I’ve ever given.” Milo nodded and banked the wheel to his left. “We’re just sorry!” finished Gemma.
She took over command of the wheel and set off in the direction where the sky looked clearest. The Forgotten Island faded from view as swiftly as it had appeared, almost like magic. Milo sprawled out on the deck with the tiny ship and began examining it. He tapped it on the side, wiggled the rudder in back, and held it up from every angle.
“Find anything interesting?” Gemma called out.
Milo shook his head with a sigh and placed the ship onto the wooden deck. Then, a playful smirk crept up as he decided to spin it around like a dreidel.
“I’d hardly call that ‘the most greatest treasure in the world’! There must be more to it,” she continued to herself. “‘Most greatest treasure.’ Who talks like that? It’s something a kid would say.”
The glint from the bow of another boat stole her attention. Somehow, it had come within four lengths of the Mystic Reed without her noticing, and was now pulling alongside them.
“We’ve got company Milo!” she shouted. But Milo’s attention had been stolen too, not by the life-sized boat pulling ever closer, but by the tiny ship in his hands. Spinning it had betrayed an exciting secret. Something hidden was rattling around inside.
The Mystic Reed slowed to a stop as the strange, unknown boat settled by its side. A six-foot-tall man with dark curly hair and a long nose stepped away from his helm towards Gemma.
“Ahoy!” he said over the railing of his old, wonky boat. It was filled with so many knick-knacks and trinkets that it looked like a giant had picked up a dozen different shops and shaken their contents on board.
“Ahoy,” Gemma said back.
“Pleasure to meet you. Might I ask your name and the name of this fine vessel?” said the man.
“My name is Gemma, and this is the Mystic Reed. My friend’s name is Milo but he’s a bit busy at the moment.”
Milo pulled off the crow’s nest on top of the tiny ship and peeked inside the hollow mast. His eyes grew two sizes when he spotted a scroll that had been rolled up and tucked away. Using his lemur fingers, he clawed at it, tongue sticking out in concentration.
“And you?” she asked back.
The man proudly stepped aside to show the full span of his boat.
“This here is the Dusty Rust Busket,” he said with a smile.
Gemma looked confused. “Do you mean Dusty Rust Bucket?”
“Bucket? This isn’t a bucket- it’s a boat!” he snapped back.
“I’m sorry,” said Gemma, “I just thought…”
Milo pulled the scroll from the ship and let out a sequel of delight. Finally taking notice of the stranger, the Dusty Rust Busket, and his general surroundings, he hid it behind his back and joined Gemma.
“You thought wrong,” added the man, still stinging from the question.
“It won’t happen again, um…” Gemma replied with curiosity.
“Charles. My name is Charles Bucket. But you can call me Chuck,” he said with a grand bow.
Gemma tapped her shoulder and Milo hopped up. “Milo, I’d like you to meet Chuck Bucket of the Dusty Rust Busket.” As yet, it was the silliest sentence she had ever said aloud, but she still had many sentences and much silliness ahead of her.
Chuck Bucket gave a less exaggerated bow and half smile to Milo.
“Now that we’ve all been introduced, might we discuss the riddle in your lemur’s hand?” he asked.
Gemma hadn’t noticed. It wasn’t until Milo hiccuped at the question, as he sometimes does when he’s surprised, that she realized he was holding something behind his back. He shot her a sheepish stare, which is hard for a lemur to do. Slowly, he pulled out the thin scroll from behind his back.
“Where did you get that, Milo?” Gemma asked with surprise, but no hiccups.
“I believe it was from that little toy he was playing with over there,” interrupted Chuck, pointing to the tiny ship on the deck of the Mystic Reed.
Milo offered it up to Gemma. She grabbed it and shot him a stare. There was no room for secrets on a boat. That’s something that he Uncle Horace had taught her. The Mystic Reed was her boat, and she didn’t like the idea of a stranger knowing more about its goings-on than her.
“I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, Captain Bucket,” she said, turning back to him. “I don’t know what makes you think it’s a riddle…” Gemma unrolled the scroll and scanned the parchment. She paused, then looked up again.
“Okay, fine, it’s a riddle.”
More curious than the hidden riddle was the way in which it was written. The beautiful black-ink calligraphy had a quality that she had seen only twice while sailing the Eight Seas. The first time was in a ledger, stolen off a royal ship, that she had won in a game of checkers. Milo lost it in a different game of checkers the same night. The second was on a spyglass telescope that Gemma’s uncle had shown her. “A gift from old friends,” he had said.
This writing was just as intricate and written with even more care.
“How did you know what was on here?” asked Gemma.
Chuck Bucket gave his biggest, kindness smile. “I know a riddle when I see one. I deal with them quite a bit in my travels.”
Gemma pondered this for a moment. She had known some treasure hunters that traded riddles late into the night on a long journey. They did it for entertainment, but also to test their wits. A few of the riddles were ancient and well-known. The kind of riddles that some children could answer proudly. But, sometimes a sailor would come from a distant land with a riddle that was yet untold. Gemma liked the idea that the world still held secret riddles waiting to be solved, and suspected that Captain Chuck Bucket had uncovered a great many in his work.
“So, let’s have it,” he added. He leaned in close and stuck his ear out towards her.
Gemma read the scroll aloud.
“In a small pond, I was a small fish.
Now is the time, to grant me my wish.”
She read it aloud a second time to be sure. Gemma and Milo looked at each other with blank stares.
“I don’t get it, Milo,” said Gemma. “Was there a fish in the ship?” Milo crossed his arms and shook his head. He was not a fish thief.
Captain Chuck Bucket sighed and stood up straight again. “I had hoped it might be more difficult. I do enjoy a difficult riddle.”
“You mean you know what the answer?” Gemma asked with surprise.
“Indeed I do,” he replied.
There was a great pause.
“So… will you tell us?!” spit it out Gemma.
Captain Bucket stroked his chin and thought for a moment. “I might,” he said. “I might.”
Milo lifted his finger in the air excitedly then hopped down to rummage below deck. He came scurrying back up on two legs holding a checkers board.
“No, Milo!” urged Gemma. “You are not playing him in checkers for it. You’ll end up losing the boat.”
Milo pouted and turned back around.
“He’s never won,” whispered Gemma to Captain Bucket. “And I don’t mean that as an exaggeration. I mean not a single time. And he played a chicken, twice.”
“Bad luck I’m sure,” said Captain Bucket sweetly. Then his eyes lit up, as if an idea had just struck him. “Why don’t we trade instead! You give me that elegant purple ribbon in your hair, and I’ll give you the answer. It will add nicely to my collection,” he said.
Gemma touched the ribbon in her hair. “My ribbon?” she questioned, undoing the knot and holding it in her hands. “I suppose. I just got it back, though.”
“Then you won’t miss it much.” Captain Bucket reached out and grabbed it from her hands, then secured it in his own, wavy hair.
He retreated to the steering wheel of the Dusty Rust Busket and waved Gemma farewell.
“Goodbye Gemma! A chance encounter I won’t soon forget!” he said, pulling away.
Milo arrived back and sat on the railing, looking out.
“Wait!” shouted Gemma. “What’s the answer to the riddle!”
Captain Bucket gave one last smile and cupped his hands to his mouth.
“Sometimes what we just need room to explore. That ship you found is looking for a bigger pond!” And with that, he spun The Dusty Rust Busket towards the horizon and sailed away.
Gemma stood watching for a moment longer.
“We make deals with some interesting people, Milo,” she said to a nod.
Milo picked up the tiny ship and handed it to Gemma. It was hardly the straightforward answer that Gemma had wanted, but it was still a step in the right direction. The tiny ship needed more room.
“It needs a bigger pond.” The pair peered over the edge of the boat into the water and watched low waves slap the hull. “It doesn’t get much bigger than that,” she said. It was the best, and only, idea that she had. Gemma took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and dropped the tiny ship over the edge of the Mystic Reed. “I sure hope it floats,” she added.
The ship plopped down below the surface, sending out ripples, then bobbed back up. A small cylinder in the back of the boat, that Milo had assumed was a miniature barrel, became electrified by the salt water ocean. It whirred and wizzed until a propellor protruded out of the end. It turned slowly at first, and then built up steam, until it was spinning so fast that the blades couldn’t be seen. With a gentle hum, the tiny ship sped off in a direction only it knew.
“Milo! That ship is getting away!” Gemma jumped back to the steering wheel. Using all of her might, she grabbed a peg on the wheel and pulled hard to spin the boat around. Milo wrapped his tail and hands around another one and pulled alongside her.
“That’s it!” she shouted.
The boat had turned almost all the way around by the time they were on course to follow. Milo climbed up the mast and used their spyglass telescope to spot the tiny ship. Whenever Gemma veered too far in one direction Milo would squeak and point to the starboard or port. The Mystic Reed had a great size advantage over the tiny ship that it was tailing, however a sailboat is at whim of the wind, and must, at times, take a more indirect route to get where it’s going. So, it was with both luck and skill that Gemma and her first mate, or ‘first primate’ as she liked to joke, caught up to the ship in time to see it find the lightning current.
Gemma had heard tales of a current of electric blue, so powerful and full of life that it lit up the surface of the sea, but she had never seen it. She didn’t truly believe anyone else had either. But as they approached the tiny ship, there was no denying that it was riding down the center of a glowing blue stream the very shape and color of lightning. The tiny ship zigged and zagged with the turns, and Gemma did her best to stay the course. She no longer needed Milo’s navigation, since the sea itself was showing her the way. The lighting pattern got slimmer and slimmer as the two vessels approached a sandy shore.
The tiny ship stopped dead just before the break of the waves on the shore. Gemma dropped anchor and watched from above as it let out a few bubbles and flipped over. The hull opened up just before the ship sank out of sight. In its place, it left a message in a bottle floating on the water, waiting to be opened.
Gemma and Milo sat around a campfire on the shore at dusk. They had found nothing but dunes, which are small hills of sand, and desert, and Gemma decided it was best for them to stay near the Mystic Reed for the night. The biggest reason was that there was no way to tell where the tiny ship had led them. Nearest Gemma could figure, the Forbidden Island had been somewhere on the edge of the Azul Sea, and its waters were, by far, the most mysterious of the Eight Seas. Almost all of her treasure hunting was done in the Cascade Sea and the Sparkling Sea. Occasionally, she ventured to out the Mosaic Sea to island hop, but that was more for Milo than for riches. Gemma always found a reason to stop by Lemur Island while they were there, to Milo’s utter delight. The Azul Sea, though, had a reputation for legend and danger. There were even rumblings of fantastical creatures but, Gemma noted, never any evidence or firsthand accounts. Once they found whatever it was they were looking for, Gemma vowed to sail them straight back home to Harbortown. But first, they would need to decipher another riddle. This time it had come from a bottle.
Gemma held the empty bottle in her hand and read the clue on the piece of paper aloud once again.
“As the day rises, the cottontails run.
Follow their tracks by the light of the sun.”
The fire crackled as Gemma and Milo pondered the words.
“Cottontails. They must mean rabbits right?” Milo curled his tail into a tight ball and hopped around on all fours.
“Quit it Milo, this is serious business,” Gemma said with a laugh and a smile.
Milo grabbed a bundle of licorice and snapped off a piece that he felt he’d earned for his performance. Gemma had laid out some food around the campfire, that she got from the yellow knapsack that she always brought on expeditions. There was sourdough bread, jerky, apples, oranges, and a bundle of licorice that was getting smaller by the hour.
“Whatever we’re supposed to do next, it has to wait for morning. ‘By the light of the sun’ the riddle says.”
Gemma pulled out a deck of purple Giants and Goblins cards. They were a gift from her uncle soon after her parents sent her to stay with him. “They’re good for passing the time on the sea,” he would say. “Remember, the Giants might be stronger, but Goblins have the numbers and the smarts.” Her uncle had taught her all the best combinations and tricks. His shipmates taught her all the best ways to cheat. Cheating was as big of a part of the game as anything else; even more so when Milo was playing. They played game after game, until the stars were glowing as brightly as the lightning bugs nearby.
“I play a Stone Giant!” said Gemma triumphantly.
Milo looked at his deck with his tongue slightly sticking out of his mouth, a sign of his highest level of concentration. He gave a sly wheezing chuckle and laid down four Goblins, three that had weapons and one that was holding a lyre, a musical instrument. He raised his hands and shook them together triumphantly.
“Wait, a second, let me see your tail!” she demanded. Milo spun around but conveniently kept his tail hidden from view. But Gemma stood up and spotted the four clandestine cards he was gripping behind his back.
“I knew it!” she said. “You’re a Goblin thief!”
Milo looked back up at her with the widest, most innocent yellow eyes he could muster, until a smile swept over Gemma’s face involuntarily. Soon they were laughing.
“I don’t know why I bother playing with you,” she realized.
Milo stood up proudly and let out a series of serious and determined squeaks.
“I know, I know. You come from a long line of cheaters and it was your great grandlemur’s last wish that you carry on the tradition,” Gemma translated. It was, in fact, exactly what Milo was saying.
Gemma laid back onto a piece of driftwood and looked up at the moon, full in the sky. She tapped her side and Milo nodded to accept, snuggling in next to her.
“What do you think it is, Milo? What’s the ‘most greatest treasure in the world’?
Milo thought for a moment then hopped up with a smile. He pointed to his tail with both hands and squeaked. Gemma smirked and then laid back down dismissively.
“It is NOT a gold tail ringlet. Not everyone has a tail you know.”
Milo shrugged and laid back down. Gemma didn’t say it, but there was more than one occasion when she had truly, desperately wished she had a tail. It was hard to have a best friend with Milo’s tail talents. It was a constant reminder that her rear end was inferior in all but one way: sitting in chairs. Milo had a difficult time finding a place for his tail. If a genie gave her the chance to grow one she would have taken it. Although, it would have meant finding a genie with a very specific set of powers. And then it would mean a lot of explaining, being a human with a lemur-sized tail for the rest of her life. These were the thoughts that carried Gemma off to sleep that night: a tail-obsessed genie, and a lifetime of arguments with pants-makers.
It wasn’t the sun or Milo’s snoring that woke Gemma up, but the low trampling rumble of a stampede. The vibrations rocked her awake and caused her eyes to open through heavy blinks. A cloud of sand was approaching their camp.
“Wake up, Milo! It’s… it’s a… I don’t know what it is!” Gemma yelled.
Milo sat upright and rubbed his eyes. A piece of licorice still hung from his lips as he looked around. He was just in time to see a blur of ears and feet and tails storming into the center of their campsite. They were moving in a speedy, rigid formation. A hard and sharp turn towards the desert led them straight over the sand dunes, out of sight. There was no mistaking it, these were cottontail rabbits, just as Gemma had expected. But she had not expected what they found in the rabbits’ wake. Milo stuffed the dangling licorice into his mouth as they stared at the bare ground, with not a speck of food left.
“After them!” yelled Gemma. The pack of cottontail rabbits had cleared the beach and hurried into the desert. Milo grabbed the sack off the sandy shore and handed it to Gemma. They followed after the rabbits, kicking up swirls of sand like a tornado in a field of flowers.
Running with all the speed they could muster, Gemma and Milo kept up for the better part of an hour. Under the blistering sun, it was getting harder and harder to keep up their pace. The rabbits, it seemed, were a bit more adept than them at desert sprints, whether they wanted to admit it or not. As the sun hit the middle of the sky, the chase brought them all to a small desert oasis, with palm trees, green plants, and a small fresh water pond.
“Am I seeing things, Milo?” asked Gemma, out of breath and so hot that her hair seemed to be sweating. Milo’s wide eyes and drooling grin told her that she wasn’t. “No time to stop,” she panted, “We need to catch those rabbits.” Milo let out a disappointed squeak, but pressed on.
The rabbits tore through the oasis without a second thought and continued onto large dunes. When Gemma and Milo took the same path and came to the top of a dune, the rabbits were gone. All they saw were row upon row of sand dunes.
“They could’ve gone anywhere,” said Gemma. “Those dunes make it impossible to see!”
Milo raised his finger to make a point and then flopped back on to the sand.
“Milo! Are you okay?” she asked. Milo didn’t answer.
“Do you want to go to the oasis?” she asked. Milo didn’t move.
“Do you want me to carry you to the oasis?” she asked. Milo lifted his head and nodded with a smile.
Gemma picked him up and they made their way back down the dune, straight towards the oasis pond. The shade from the palm trees gave them immediate relief from the sun overhead as they laid down by the pond next to each other. There were a dozen bushes and patches of uneven grass around the rim of the water. It felt cool and soft beneath their heads. It was the first moment of rest they’d had since waking up, and it felt better than good and gooder than great to not be running.
“How are we going to catch those rabbits?” Gemma asked. Instead of answering, Milo rolled over into the pond and slurped up as much water as he could.
“Yeah, I guess we can figure it out tomorrow,” she said. But, Milo didn’t hear her, because he was busy doing the backstroke.
That night, under a sky filled with stars, they sat around a new fire and got ready for sleep. The water had rejuvenated them, but their food supply was dwindling, after the rambunctious rabbits had robbed them. This night’s feast was smaller than the last, but they were happy to have it. As Milo chewed on a licorice stick, Gemma laid her head on a particularly comfortable patch of onion grass.
“So, what do you really think the most greatest treasure in the world will be?” she asked him.
Milo hopped up and twirled his fingers around his tail from top to bottom with a series of squeaks.
“It is not a diamond tail spiral, Milo. Not everything has to do with your tail!” she replied.
Milo chuckled to himself and laid down next to her. They stared up at the night sky and got lost in the sparkling patterns above them.
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” she said. Milo nodded happily. They remind me of the night before my parents left. My mom took me to a waterfall and…” Gemma was interrupted by Milo’s snoring. She glanced over and saw him, fast asleep. “Goodnight, Milo,” she finished.
The next morning, they were woken again by the herd of cottontails. Exhausted from a day of pursuit, Gemma and Milo had slept all the way through to mid-day. The rabbits headed straight through the oasis, as they had before. By the time Gemma opened her eyes and realized it, it was too late. Gemma had left their food out again, and the rabbits were devouring it as they passed.
“No! Shoo! Get outta here!” she yelled, sitting up and reaching towards them. They were gone before she got to her feet.
Gemma grabbed her bag and ran to the top of the dune. Just like before, the rabbits were gone. More gone even. It had taken Gemma longer to climb the dune, in her sleepy state. Milo, had, impressively, not even woken up.
“They’re gone again,” she said, as Milo rubbed his eyes open. “And they took the food we left out.” Milo scrambled to the backpack and crawled inside to look through. He came back out with a frown.
“I know,” she said. “All we have left is some bread, four licorice sticks, a coconut, and those spices that make you…” Gemma stopped.
“Milo, I think I have an idea. Tomorrow, when they come back. You and I are going to be ready,” she said with a grin. Milo grinned too, not because he knew the plan but because he liked when Gemma grinned.
Under the moonlight on the third night, Gemma and Milo laid down to sleep.
“We’ll need to rest up if my plan is going to work,” she said, fixing her pillow of onion grass.
Milo snuggled up to a soft bush and got cozy.
“So, one last try. What do you think the ‘most greatest treasure in the world’ is?”
Milo hopped up even more excited than before. He swung his tail around like a lasso, hopped on both feet, pointed to the sky, then back at his tail, wrapped it around his leg, then danced a jig.
“Milo! That’s… actually, okay that would be pretty amazing.”
Milo laid down and fell asleep with a smile on his face.
When mid-day came, Gemma and Milo had packed their bag, drank lots of water, and were waiting in the center of the oasis. Bits and chunks of bread were spread out on the ground in front of them.
The cottontail rabbits came over the horizon and headed right for their camp.
“Here we go, Milo. I hope this works.”
The rabbits ran over their camp just as they had each day before. And they ate all the food, just as they had the each day before. When they headed up the dune, with Gemma and Milo chasing them, there was not a speck of bread left.
At the top of the dune, Gemma looked around and, once again, saw only sand. Milo looked to her, but she held up her hand. They stood, waiting. Nothing happened.
“Come on… come on…” she whispered.
And that’s when a puff of sand shot up on the other side of a dune to their left. And then another.
“There!” she said, pointing. They ran off in the direction of the sand puffs. As they came to the top of the next dune, they looked around again. Another puff from a different dune.
“It’s working!” yelled Gemma. The spices on that bread are making them sneeze, just like you, Milo!”
Gemma and Milo ran up and down dunes all afternoon, never losing track of the rabbits and their sandy sneezes. Then, to their surprise, the puffs of sand stopped moving. They all came from the same place, on the other side of a tall dune. When Gemma and Milo reached the top, they looked down over a group of sleeping, sneezing, cottontail rabbits, curled up together. They were lying at the foot of a dirt path that stretched through a few trees, then on into a deep, dark forest.
Young Gemma and her mom had stopped at the foot of a waterfall. The moonlight hit the water and made it glow a silvery blue as it rolled over the rocks and down to the stream below. Gemma thought of how this might be last time that she saw the night sky over the rainforest with her mom. It made her love the flickering stars even more. And for a reason she couldn’t completely understand, it made her angry at each and every one. She stood across the stream from her mother and looked up. Both of her parents were taller than her but her mother was not nearly as out of reach as her father. Gemma imagined that she was only a few years of eating vegetables away from drawing even.
“Gemma, do you know why your father and I are explorers?” asked her mom.
The answer was so simple to Gemma that she was almost confused. “It’s fun.”
“That’s part of it,” said Gemma’s mom with a smile. “But far from all of it.”
Her mom leaned down close to the stream and reached in with both hands. She scooped up an impressive amount of water. A few more years of drinking milk and Gemma’s hands would be just as large, she was sure.
“What do you see in my hands, Gemma?” she asked.
Gemma was confused again. These were hardly questions worthy of a waterfall chat.
“It’s water,” she said confidently.
Gemma’s mom spread her fingers and let the water slip down like the waterfall. A layer of mud covered her hands.
“That’s mud,” answered Gemma.
Gemma’s mom sifted through the mud, until glimmers of gold rose to the surface.
Gemma’s eyes sparkled as she looked at the precious metal in her mom’s hand.
“You see. There is wonder all us around us,” explained her mother. She pointed to the water. “In the sea.” She slapped the mud into Gemma’s hands, making her laugh. “In the earth.”
Gemma’s mom looked up.
“And in the sky!” interrupted Gemma.
“That’s right,” said her mom.
Gemma looked up. Her eyes still sparkling, until she remembered. “But, why do you have to go?” she asked. She could feel the tears coming whether she wanted them or not.
Then it was her mom’s turn to get serious.
“Since the beginning, it has been the job of explorers to find the wonders of this world. And to keep them safe,” she explained.
“And to keep them secret?” asked Gemma.
“Precisely!” replied her mom. “We are a group. We work together to protect these wonders. But there is one of us who would take them. Who would use them for their own gain.”
Gemma’s face scrunched up in anger. She understood that it was wrong for someone to take things that weren’t theirs. But more than that, she understood that her mother and father were leaving because of whoever this person was.
“Who is it??” she cried. “I’ll stop them!”
Gemma’s mom reached out and grabbed her hand with a smile. “I have no doubt you would. But it is a job for your father and I. There are things you still don’t know.”
“Like what?” demanded Gemma. There were few things that Gemma disliked more than not knowing things that she wanted to know. It ranked just below not having things that she wanted to have.
“There is a key,” her mom relented.
“Like a key to open something?” asked Gemma.
“Yes,” answered her mom. “Although we don’t know what it looks like. It was here, underground, and they came for it.”
It was a lot for Gemma to understand. “They came to the jungle?”
“Yes. But, don’t worry, they have no interest in us, they were just looking for the key.”
“And they took it?” asked Gemma.
“It seems that the key is still hidden, but we don’t know where. We must find it before anyone else does, Gemma.”
“Why?” asked Gemma. “What is it?”
Gemma’s mom found her favorite constellation in the sky and let out a sigh.
“The stuff of dreams, Gemma. The stuff of dreams.”
The cottontail rabbits were fast asleep as Gemma and Milo snuck by. There was no use in waking them. The path lay ahead, and besides, the rabbits were too good at stealing food to give them another chance at the knapsack. At first, the path was covered in a tan dirt and surrounded by low bushes with just a few leaves. As the day turned to dusk, the path became dark, surrounded by trees. It wasn’t long before they passed through an archway of green branches, made many years before. Gemma and Milo stepped forward into the deep woods. They were entering what was known to the ancestors of old as the Forrest of Misfortune.
“I have a good feeling about this place, Milo,” said Gemma.
It’s important to remember that she did not know that this was the forrest’s name.
As dusk continued into night, Gemma and Milo found the path more and more overgrown with branches. A strange orange bird looked down on them from a tall tree. Milo looked up and stared at it suspiciously. He kept his eyes on it as he walked.
“It’s just a bird, Milo,” said Gemma, looking back. “Just because these plants and animals are new to us doesn’t make them bad.”
Gemma pushed ahead. The moment she turned her back, the bird glared at Milo and stuck out its tongue. Before Milo could make a fuss, Gemma urged him on.
“Come on, we’ve got to find something soon before it gets too dark.”
Milo rushed to catch up, and ran right into Gemma from behind. She had stopped dead at a wall of multi-colored leaves. Slowly, she parted them to see that the path went into a circular clearing, and stopped at a lonely tree in the center. This was no ordinary tree, however. It was large. And not large in the way that the largest apple is when surrounded by smaller apples. It was large in the way that a watermelon is when surrounded by grapes. There was grass all around it and the roots were covered with moss and, for some reason, it had an orange glow. It was the most impressive tree that Gemma had ever seen.
“I think this is what we were supposed to find, Milo,” said Gemma, never breaking her stare. Milo nodded.
It was so impressive in fact, that Gemma didn’t notice the two doors at its base until she was a few feet away. They were made from a different wood than the tree itself. One was painted blue, and the other was painted not blue. It is not remembered what color the second door was painted, so it cannot be said for sure what it was, except that it was not blue. Gemma approached the blue door. There was no one else around and there were no signs to be read.
“I guess we should just try both of them,” guessed Gemma.
But before her hand could turn the brass knob, a small window opened up above their heads. It was impossible to see it until it opened since it was made form the same wood as the tree, and its seams were seamless.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said a voice from the window. A small elderly woman with pink pigtails poked her head out from above and peered down.
Gemma pulled her hand back and stood up straight.
“Oh, um, why is that?” she asked.
“Because only one of those doors will lead you up to me. The other will suck you inside and spit you out on the other side of the world,” said the woman.
Milo laughed dismissively and slapped his leg.
“Don’t believe me?” said the woman. “Give it a try, then. I should mention that the other side of the world is smack dab in the middle of the Durg Sea.”
Milo laughed a little softer. Then not at all.
“Why would someone design a tree like that?!” protested Gemma.
The elderly woman cocked her head. The pigtails on her head bobbed.
“You’re looking for something extraordinary, my dear,” she said. “Extraordinary is not easy.”
Gemma and Milo looked at each other excitedly.
“You know what we’re looking for?” she asked the woman with pink pigtails. “All we know is that it’s the most greatest treasure in the world.”
The woman chuckled. “I’ll never understand why they started calling it that. It’s something a child would say.”
The woman started down at them, then retreated back into the tree and shut the window abruptly.
Gemma was startled. “But… hey!” she shouted.
The woman stuck her head out again and looked down. “Ah, you two… yes, what is it?”
Gemma pleaded with her. “Excuse me, miss…”
“My name is Willow,” she responded.
“What a beautiful name, were you named after this tree?” Gemma asked with a smile slightly too big for her mouth.
“How should I know?” said Willow with a scoff. “I was a baby at the time.”
“Right… well, I’m Gemma and this is Milo,” said Gemma awkwardly.
Willow peeked her head out further and looked down on them.
“Gemma, what an unusual name. Were you named after a rock?” Willow said, with no smile at all. Gemma just ignored the question, as well as Milo giggling at it.
“Willow, we have no idea which door to open. Can you at least give us a hint?” Gemma asked.
“A hint??” shouted Willow. “The nerve! The gall! The outright… the bull-frogginess of it!”
Gemma slouched down. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to offend.”
Willow slammed the window making it disappear into the tree once again. They sat staring up at it for a minute. Gemma was about ready to give up when it opened again. Willow leaned out and addressed them, this time holding a piece of paper.
“As it just so happens, I do have a hint,” she said proudly. “I wrote it down years ago but no one’s ever asked for it. No one’s ever made it this far at all, actually. Anyone could’ve made the same mistake!” she added.
“Certainly,” responded Gemma kindly.
“Quite,” said Willow. She cleared her throat and read the paper aloud. “Don’t count on smell or feel or sight. The doors will tell you which is right.”
Gemma quintet her eyes and thought hard. After a great deal of pondering she was sure of only one thing.
“I need to hear it again,” she said.
“You wish to hear it again,” said Willow. “You need to pick the right door or you’ll be kraken food in the Durg Sea.” Willow shut the window one final time.
“You gotta be kidding!” expelled Gemma, throwing her hands into the air. Milo threw his hands up as high as they could go in support. “Why is everything a riddle?” Milo shook his head furiously in support even more. “Maybe we should just climb up the tree and crawl in the window instead. I wonder how Willow’d feel about THAT!” Milo paused. As a lemur, he was no stranger to climbing trees. However, this tree had no branches within reach and was wider than all the trees he’d ever climbed added up and bunched together like twigs. He could not support this.
Gemma settled down in her usual way. She sighed, then stomped, then huffed, then sighed and stomped again. If was after the second stomp that she decided to get back down to business. She paced around as she recited what she could remember of the riddle.
“She said, that the doors will tell us which is right.” Gemma recalled, turning to the forest. “But we shouldn’t use sight or smell or feel. She’s talking about using our senses. And since there are five senses, that only leaves two.” Gemma smiled and snapped her fingers. “It means we need to use either taste or sound to find the right door! And I think we both know which one she means… sound!”
Gemma turned back to find Milo frozen, leaning towards the nearest door with his tongue sticking out, ready to lick. He had guessed taste. Milo slowly pulled his tongue back into his mouth, straightened up and gave an apologetic grin.
Gemma whispered as kindly as she could. “You need to stop licking things, Milo. How many times have I told you?”
Milo answered by raising four fingers, but, in fact, the right answer was five. To date, Milo had been caught licking a beehive, wet paint, a sea slug, and a particularly delicious looking bar of pink soap. The door made five, but given the circumstances, it is understandable that Milo did not think to count this instance, so soon after retracting his tongue.
Gemma joined him by the tree. “It’s got to be sound. We need to listen to hear what’s inside. You take this door and I’ll take the other.” They positioned themselves, each with an ear against a door. “Hear anything?” Gemma asked.
Milo heard nothing and shook his head. Gemma strained to hear a noise, any noise at all, inside. But there was none. She sighed, and was getting ready to stomp and huff, until something hit her.
“Wait just a second. Willow said that one of these doors has stairs behind it, and the other is a hole that will suck us up and spit us out on the other side of the world.” Milo shuddered at the reminder. Gemma reached down to the forest floor and brushed aside some brown and red leaves. She sifted through a group of rocks until she found two that were the size she was looking for. She handed one to a confused Milo and took her place back on the second door.
“Okay, Milo. We need to knock on the doors and listen for an echo.” Milo nodded and pressed his ear against the door again. He knocked three times on the door and listened. He knocked three more times. He knocked two more times. Then he knocked five times to a beat. “Milo!” Milo stopped and smiled at her.
“Did you hear an echo?” Milo nodded and tossed the rock aside, going over to Gemma at her door.
“That means there should be no echo from this door.” Gemma knocked three times loudly, and both she and Milo listened. They heard no echo at all. Gemma gave one more hard knock. “Nothing. There must be stairs behind this one! If it was empty space then it would echo like yours did.”
Gemma put her hand on the brass knob and paused. Milo held her leg tight and closed his eyes. If she was right then their journey would continue. And if she was wrong, then it would end right now, at the bottom of the Durg Sea.
Her hand was steady as she turned the knob.
But she never got a chance to push.
The door flew open and pulled her hand with it.
Milo opened his eyes and saw Willow, holding a paintbrush and staring up at Gemma.
“Most people don’t use rocks to knock on front doors,” said Willow.
Willow led Gemma and Milo up to her home, a few flights up inside the enormous tree. The staircase ended on a landing with furniture, among which were two comfortable chairs, a bookcase, and a bright slanted desk built into the side of the tree. Just to its right, Willow pushed on the wall until two slats popped and swung out. Gemma decided that the window was just as mysterious from the inside, and looked like any other spot on the wall until it was opened. She couldn’t imagine how skilled of a carpenter had made such a feat.
Willow sat down at the desk with an orange chair and dipped the paintbrush into a mug of water. Colors flowed from the tip and swirled in a storm of purples and yellows. Gemma noticed a dozen dips in the desk, as if a ball had been repeatedly pressed into it as it was made. Each one was filled with a different color paint. Too many colors for just one rainbow, Gemma thought. She took a moment to look around and realized that most of the wall was covered with beautiful paintings overlapping each other. There were mountains and rivers and creatures that Gemma had never seen before. Her eyes fixated on a majestic sea monster with two enormous fins and a long neck.
“These paintings are wonderful! Where do you find your ideas?” asked Gemma.
“Willow spun her chair around and stared at Gemma with narrow eyes. She studied her for just a moment, but long enough for Gemma to feel shy.
“Dreams,” replied Willow. “I draw my dreams.” In a flash, she spun back with her paintbrush in hand. She hovered between a puddle of sky blue paint and rose red. “I used to draw… other things… but now I just draw my dreams.”
“I wish I could paint,” said Gemma, sadly. In all her years at sea learning about the world, she had never gotten the hang of drawing and painting. She had decided long ago that it was for other people to be good at, not her.
Willow stood up without a sound and walked over to face Gemma. She was at least a loaf of bread shorter, but her stare made Gemma feel small.
“No use wishing for things you can have. Painting is just a way of talking with your hands,” said Willow. The paintbrush dropped into Gemma’s hands. “Find your voice, dear girl.”
Willow hurried back over to her table and hopped back onto her chair. Reaching inside her jacket pocket, she pulled out another brush and dipped it firmly into the sky blue paint puddle.
“Now enough nonsense. I have work to do. it’s time for you both to get moving,” said Willow.
Gemma patted her shoulder and Milo hopped up. “Moving? But, you haven’t told us anything.” Gemma squeezed the brush in her hand. “About where we’re supposed to go I mean…”
Willow laughed. “Where else would you go but the top?” she asked. With brush in hand, Willow pointed to a section of clear wood on the wall to her right. Besides the window, it was one of the only places on the tree without paintings. To Gemma, it most resembled the shape of a door. And, my Dear Friend, as you well know, our first guesses are usually the best ones we have. Still unsure of herself, Gemma walked over and pushed against the wood, the same way that Willow had on the window. With the ease of wind on dry leaves, a door slid open to reveal another staircase. Gemma climbed onto the first step then looked back at Willow. She was at her desk, feverishly painting. Gemma squeezed her gift tightly again, then placed it into her backpack.
“Thank you,” said Gemma. Willow didn’t say another word, nor did she stop what she was doing, for a dream had come back to her and such fleeting things cannot be put aside for pleasantries.
Gemma and Milo ascended only a few steps before the door shut behind them. The design was so perfect that not a speck of light from Willow’s home made it to the stairs. They climbed in darkness from there on out. It wasn’t long before Gemma figured out the way of the staircase. It was winding, taking them up and up in what seemed like a never-ending spiral. They climbed for hours, taking only a few breaks to eat a small licorice snack or catch their breath. Milo didn’t complain, even though each step for a human equals two steps for a lemur.
“This… must… be… the… tallest-tree-ever!” said Gemma. It seemed that with each flight of stairs, her legs were shouting louder for her to stop and plant herself, to become a part of the tree and grow roots. It was not soon after that, on step number 5,040 for her (and 10,080 for Milo), that she hit her head on a wooden board. She lifted it up and saw the dim glow of light above her. It was a trap door. They had finally reached the top.
They crawled up out of the stairwell and shut the trap door behind them. After a moment of cheering and exhausted high-fives, they looked around at their new surroundings, happy to be out of the dark and done with stairs. It was a circular room with a tall cylinder in the center. A large lantern was held fast on top of it. The walls and ceiling were covered by what looked like a large patchwork quilt. Only a wooden skeleton frame made it a room and kept the cloth from falling on them. Milo hopped onto the cylinder and noticed that there was a knob for the lantern (a lemur’s eyes adjust to the dark much faster than a human’s in cases such as this). With a shrug, Milo turned the lantern on.
The room began to shake. Instead of a small light, a huge flame had erupted from the lantern. The quilt began to rise over their heads. It reminded Gemma of her mother tucking her in at night. She would take the sheet on Gemma’s bed and lift it up swiftly, then let it float down gently onto Gemma. But this time the quilt kept rising. Gemma held onto the nearest wooden post and braced herself. The walls of quilt expanded outward and upward towards the night sky. The moon hit both of their faces as the room was pushed up and off of the top of the tree.
It is easy to understand why Gemma had not realized it sooner, as this was the first time she had ever been inside a hot air balloon.
The thing about riding in a mysterious air balloon through the dark starry night, is that you do not get to decide where it goes. This might have worried most people and most lemurs, but Gemma and Milo laid down for the night, too exhausted to think. The basket of the balloon was large and thick enough that the cold sky air didn’t bother them. Gemma asked Milo if he’d like to cuddle up and got an enthusiastic nod in return. Soon, they fell asleep, nestled up, and cozier than anyone had a right to be inside a floating hot air balloon.
Gemma dreamed of the night her mom took her to the waterfall. She remembered the glistening stream. She pictured the bright stars shining in the sky. The mud. The gold. And her mother. “The stuff of dreams,” she murmured in her sleep. There were still parts that she couldn’t remember from that night. It had been so long ago. She had tried not to think about it. The days that followed, the days after her parents went away, were even more of a blur. She had been given a tearful goodbye and put on a train north. After that she was passed to and fro and ushered from here to there by friends of her parents. Some called themselves aunts or uncles and bragged about how far back they go. Others told her remarkable and dramatic stories of how they met her parents. Usually it was a grand adventure that Gemma was too young to remember or too not-yet-born to have been there. There was a gruff man with extensive knowledge of plants, a set of twins who were born in the desert region or Astronia and longed to go back, and an archeologist who had only met her parents a few times, but was excited that they had asked her for a favor. Gemma could remember at least a dozen of them. More than that, she remembered the one thing they all seemed to agree on: they wouldn’t tell Gemma a thing about where her parents had gone. Whenever she asked, they would tense up like a cold clam in an ice bath. “It’s not my business to say,” said a particularly chatty woman, who certainly thought everything else was her business, and who continued on with a story about her sister’s broken foot.
It was the young archeologist who finally dropped Gemma off by carriage next to a long, warped dock on the edge of Harbortown.
“This is where I leave you,” said the archeologist, unloading Gemma’s bags. “I have so many things I’d like to discuss with your parents. Do tell them that I said I ‘hello’! You will won’t you?” she asked.
Gemma looked up with a blank expression.
“When… you see them next I mean…” added the archeologist, realizing her mistake and beginning to panic. “Which, I’m sure will be soon. Or… you know… sooner than you think at least!” she said, digging up a smile from a time she had meant it, dusting it off, and offering it up to Gemma as genuine.
“I will,” said Gemma. The carriage rode off and Gemma sat on the edge of the dock, dangling her feet over the edge. She always loved staring at the water. It calmed her and called to her at the same time. If she had stared any longer she would have fancied a swim, even then. But, a familiar voice, the first familiar voice she had heard in weeks, called out to her.
“This cannot be my Gemma,” bellowed her Uncle Horace. His tree trunk arms lifted her onto her feet and then right off them again, in what was, to date, the best hug she had ever gotten. “My Gemma is as tiny as a rabbit. This young lady is much too grown and distinguished to be my Gemma.” He squeezed her tightly and Gemma felt the weeks of travel leave her in a puff of salty breath.
“Where have my parents gone to?” she asked, hearing then that she was crying. “When can I go home?”
Uncle Horace set her down and crouched until they were eye to eye.
“I don’t know where they will be,” answered Horace. “And the truth is neither do they.”
Gemma wiped the tears from her eyes. The first honest answer she had gotten in weeks, terrible as it was, gave her strength she hadn’t expected.
Horace grabbed her bags and started walking towards the far end of the dock to a row of three boats.
“As for a home, mine is the sea. Come, let me show you around,” he said.
Gemma spent the next few years traveling the world with her Uncle Horace. For the first few months she stopped at every port to ask if there had been word from her parents. Soon it became less frequent, until, finally, she stopped asking altogether. Instead, she focused on her uncle’s lessons, each building on the last. First, she learned the ways of the sea, learning how to clean the boat. Then, to repair it. Navigation came easiest of all. On land, her uncle taught her about new cultures, new foods, and new skills. She spent months learning accounting in Far Roeth. She learned trading and negotiation in Marlington. Tracking in Greenworth. Fighting in Tarpith. Her uncle showed her the wonders that her parents had kept secret from her. By the time she was ready to be a captain herself she had learned everything there was to learn about a seafaring life. But, it was waking up from a peaceful sleep on the floor of the hot air balloon that she realized the biggest lesson he had taught her. Gemma had learned to make any place her home.
“The stuff of dreams,” said Gemma’s mom. Young Gemma looked up at the point in the sky where her mom was looking. It was the first constellation that she had ever been shown, when she was a little smaller and her hair a little lighter.
“Pyxis,” Gemma whispered.
“That’s right,” said her mom. “It’s the mariner’s compass. Do you know what that means?”
Gemma looked at her mom and thought. She always liked the name “Pyxis,” even if it was almost impossible to say when she had a loose tooth. But, she had never thought about what it meant. She shook her head.
“A mariner is someone who sails the ocean,” Gemma’s mom said.
“So… like a sailor?” Gemma asked.
“Exactly. And a compass is a tool. It helps you figure out which way to go.”
Gemma looked back at the constellation. It looked to her like it was twinkling. She had never seen anything so beautiful.
“We’re going to be sending you to stay with your Uncle Horace at his harbor. He’ll teach you how to sail. But, I need you to remember something…” said Gemma’s Mom.
Gemma stared even harder at Pyxis. Trying not to look at her mom.
“No matter where you go, Pyxis will be there to help guide you. It will always be with you. Just like your father and I,” she finished.
The stars turned blurry through Gemma’s tears.
Inside an observatory in the middle of a lake, fifteen years later, Gemma knew what she had to do. She repeated the numbers to herself that were next to the drawing of Pyxis inside the book. She turned the dials on the telescope carefully, one then the other. Slowly, the telescope spun around, and it’s great tube tilted downward. When it stopped, Gemma knew that it had found her constellation.
She knew exactly what she would see when she peered inside the eyepiece. The brightest biggest image of Pyxis she had ever seen. But, what she didn’t expect was the soft *thud* of something dropping at her feet. A silver scroll rolled until it tapped the front of her shoes. She pulled away and picked it up, barely noticing the scattered holes around the telescope from golden moles.
Milo twisted his head and looked up underneath the dials. He pointed to a secret compartment that had held the scroll, tucked away out of sight. When Gemma turned the telescope to Pyxis, it had opened up and dropped the telescope, without a care for any lemurs that might have been hit by it, Milo noted.
“A secret within a secret,” thought Gemma.
“What do you think it is, Milo?” she asked. But before even his eager hands could grab the scroll to look, they were surprised again by a noise. This time, it was one they had heard before.
It gave her a peculiar feeling, to hear the familiar jingle of her brass bell, inside some new and odd place. Gemma turned to see her old friend, who was not a friend at all, the jaguar. He was prowling around the hole that they had climbed in from.
Gemma clutched the scroll and stepped in front of Milo to protect him.
“You again! How in the world did you get here?” she asked. That’s when Gemma realized that it wasn’t just the bell she recognized. The bell was attached to her purple ribbon again, wrapped around the jaguar’s neck.
Gemma took a step back. “But… how is that possible? How’d you get my ribbon back?” she asked.
“I would have introduced us all properly…” said a voice from the tunnel. “But this hole is a bit more snug than I expected.
“That voice…” said Gemma.
Gemma and Milo stood wide-eyed, as Charles Bucket, with his hat on his head, crawled out of the hole.
“What have you got there?” asked Charles.
“I’ve been meaning to thank you. My jaguar had grown quite fond of his ribbon back, and he’s happy to have it back,” said Charles Bucket.
The jaguar paced back and forth and then sat next to Charles Bucket. Gemma did what many people do when they are scared and have a thousand important questions going through their mind. She asked a completely different one.
“What’s your jaguar’s name, anyway?” she asked, trying to act as cool as possible.
Charles Bucket raised his chest indignantly. “Name? Why would he have a name? He’s mine and he does what I want, that’s all you need to know.”
Gemma had an instinct to clutch the scroll even harder.
“What do you want?” she asked.
Charles Bucket took a step forward. “Do you know what it is that you’re holding, Gemma?”
Gemma answered more honestly than she expected.
“No! No one will tell me and it’s starting to get annoying,” she snapped.
Charles Bucket walked over to the telescope, just as Gemma and Milo backed away from it. He looked through the eyepiece and smiled as he spoke.
“Ah, Pyxis, of course.” He turned back towards Gemma. “Do you know why the explorers of old made constellations? It was a way of communicating. Painting with the stars.” he said, answering his own question, a habit that Gemma never liked.
“Yeah, I know,” she said with an attitude. “And painting is a way of speaking with your hands.”
Charles Bucket smiled large. “I see you’ve met Willow. Did you know that she made what you’re holding?” Gemma tapped her shoulder and Milo jumped on.
Gemma wondered allowed, “Willow drew it? You mean, it’s a …”
“A map, my dear Gemma,” Charles Bucket finished.
“The most greatest treasure in the world…” Gemma whispered.
Charles Bucket took an angry step towards her. “Ugh! Your parents called it that! It’s a childish name.”
“My parents?” she asked.
“The map holds secrets. Secrets they search for even now. A foolish endeavor without the map. And now I finally have it!”
Except, Dear Friend, he did not have it. Because feeling that something is yours, and it being yours are two very different things.
Gemma rubbed the scroll with her fingers.
“This was what my parents were trying to find? This is why they left?” she said, looking off into the distance, which, in this case, was the wall of the observatory three feet from her. “It was so long ago, I can hardly…”
“Oh what does it matter!” Charles interrupted. “You led me to it and now it’s mine!”
Gemma was beginning to understand. Connecting the dots like stars in a constellation.
“You’ve been following me,” she shot back.
“Of course I have. In the Dusty Rust Busket,” he answered.
Gemma and Milo smirked at each other.
“It really is the worst name,” she quipped.
“What was that?” he asked.
“Oh nothing,” she answered, looking innocent.
“Enough! Give it here!” With the jaguar by his side, Charles Bucket lurched forward to grab the scroll from Gemma. Without a word or a thought, Gemma tucked it behind her back. Milo swung down, swiped it from her, and ran to the other side of the observatory. It was, to that day, the best handoff they’d ever pulled off.
Charles Bucket slowly approached Milo, taking his time to make sure the lemur couldn’t escape past him. Meanwhile, the jaguar went after Gemma, backing her away until she bumped into the side of the dome. They were cornered, the both of them.
Gemma felt something poking her in the back. Spinning around, she saw that there was a plaque, and below it, protruding from the wall, the hollow base of a switch. The jaguar was closing in, and she hadn’t much time to read the words. The writing was faded, but she was still able to make out the letters.
“Before you leave…” she read, “please seal the door. Protect the secret, ever more.”
“It’s another riddle!” Gemma said aloud. Lucky for her, and for Milo, and for all of us, Dear Friend, Charles Bucket did not pay attention to her words. He had only the scroll on his mind.
“There’s nowhere to go, little monkey,” said Charles Bucket as he reached out to grab it. Milo shook with fear, clutching the scroll against his beating chest.
Gemma looked at Milo. Her heart hurt, seeing him scared. She had less than no time to figure out the riddle, but it wasn’t the words that struck her. It was the switch. All that was needed to pull the switch would be a long thin instrument. A tiny satchel hung at her side, and opened with ease. It used to be her brass bell that she kept inside, but with it hanging around the neck of an approaching jaguar, she found something else instead. Something long. Something thin.
She pulled out Willow’s paintbrush and locked it in place on the switch.
Charles Bucket grabbed Milo by the arm harshly and reached for the scroll. Gemma’s eyes grew wide with anger.
“He’s not a monkey!” shouted Gemma. “He’s a ring-tailed lemur!”
Charles Bucket turned to Gemma, still holing Milo.
She pulled down on the switch until there was a loud click. “And he did not give you permission to touch him.”
A low rumble began to shake the observatory. The jaguar’s eyes darted back and forth, looking for the source of it. The noise grew as the walls of the observatory started to creak and shimmy. All four sets of eyes found the hole that they had crawled in from. Water shot up to the top of the observatory. Smaller streams came rushing up out of the golden mole holes. Faster than Gemma could understand why, the lake water was filling the observatory.
The water spun friends and enemies alike. Gemma, Milo, Charles Bucket, and the jaguar were caught up in the whirlpool as the water filled the dome. The scroll, knocked loose from Milo’s hand, was swimming freely too. Charles Bucket reached out to grasp it but missed by just a hair. The jaguar, used to meals on the run, tried to bite for it with his teeth. He missed it by a hair so small that it is smaller than the smallest hair on your head, after a haircut. Gemma tried to steady herself by grabbing on to the large tube of the telescope with her arm, but she slipped away. She whirled and swirled and began to feel dizzy. Moments later, as she came back around, she grabbed at the telescope with both arms in desperation and got hold. Milo was trying desperately to swim against the current to reach the scroll.
Charles Bucket grabbed the jaguar and flung him towards the scroll. The jaguar let out a terrible yelp as he was tossed around by the paw. Milo ducked under the water and made one last attempt to reach the scroll. When he popped back up, Gemma saw him, with his sopping face and big yellow eyes.
She didn’t care about the scroll. She didn’t care about Charles Bucket or Willow or rabbits or ships. She didn’t even care about “the most greatest treasure in the world.” Milo was her friend. There was no greater treasure than a friend like Milo. He’d stuck with her though it all, and it was her job to keep him safe. As he spun by her, Gemma caught him by the arm and slowly pulled him towards the telescope.
“Forget the scroll, Milo! We need to get out of here.” Gemma pushed Milo up the telescope and then hugged it tight. Milo started climbing towards the top, which Gemma knew housed a great glass lens. It was still pointed to the hole in the top of the dome, and that’s where they needed to get. As they reached the rim Gemma looked back down. Charles Bucket and the jaguar were thrashing around in the water, desperately looking for the scroll.
With their feet on the glass lens, Gemma and Milo lifted themselves up and out of the observatory. By then, Charles Bucket and his enraged jaguar were climbing up behind them. They saw that the lake had flooded the dry circle of land where they once landed, and the balloon was nowhere in sight. Only that small space at the very top of the observatory was above the water. No bigger than a trampoline. It was shrinking at a rapid pace. And soon they would be joined by unfriendliest of guests.
Then Gemma saw something that she had not counted on.
“Look!” yelled Gemma.
The Dusty Rust Busket, almost as if on cue, was sailing on its own towards them, riding the waves of water. It was a poorly named. It was cluttered. And dusty. And absolutely rusty. But at that moment, Gemma had never seen a more beautiful boat. She tapped her shoulder and Milo swung up. She bent her knees and readied herself as it approached.
“One…Two…Three!” Gemma and Milo jumped aboard, knocking over cans and keepsakes and trinkets. In a flash, she was up and at the steering wheel, turning the boat as far away from the dome as she could. And it was a lucky thing too, because Charles Bucket and his jaguar were a mere seconds behind them. As the boat pulled away, safely out of reach. Charles Bucket stood up and stared at Gemma. His jaguar shook his whole body, spewing drops of water like a sprinkler. Gemma heard her grandma’s bell jingle once again. The sea wind on her damp clothes made her cold. But it was Charles Bucket’s smile that made her shiver.
Gemma found a stream that fed the lake and made their escape. It gave way to a narrow but strong river which, soon, would open up into the sea.
The stars were all Gemma needed to navigate the seas, and later that night she would charter a course to Harbortown. She had much and more to discuss with her Uncle Horace. The adventure, it seemed, was over.
“We made it, Milo,” she said, steering the boat like it had always been hers. She wove around rocks and trees that jutted out over the river like arms. Milo smiled and raised a finger to get her attention, but Gemma was busy in thought.
“I mean, we didn’t get the scroll, but we’re safe. And that’s all that matters,” she said.
Milo coughed loudly, trying to grab Gemma’s attention again.
“Although, we still don’t know what was on that map, even after all this time,” she continued.
Milo waved his arms at her, but she kept her gaze on the river, as any good captain would.
“And now Charles Bucket has it, and… can we talk about him for a second? Can you believe what he…”
Milo jumped up and down and squeaked as loudly as he could, finally drawing her confused stare.
“What is it, Milo?” she asked. Standing in front of Gemma, Milo raised his tail from behind his back. It was clasping a shiny, slightly wet, silver scroll.
There was a brief, and beautiful pause.
“Milo!” Gemma screamed with a smile. “You got the scroll! You wonderful, brilliant, little lemur!”
Milo smiled too big for his face and blushed underneath his fur. He handed her the scroll, but with his tail. You might say he “tailed” it to her, if that word didn’t already have another meaning.
“Looks like we’re finally going to see what it is,” Gemma said, not able to contain her excitement even a little.
Gemma taped her shoulder and Milo hopped up to see. With their faces towards the river, as the Dusty Rust Busket opened up into the vast sea, Gemma opened the scroll. Her smile turned to surprise and wonder.
“It… can’t be…” she said. “All those years ago…”
Young Gemma’s tears blurred her eyes. The waterfall became nothing more than sparkling lights cascading down into the stream. Her parents would be leaving her, and she didn’t know for how long.
“What are you going to look for?” Gemma demanded. “Tell me what it is!”
Gemma’s mom let out a sigh. She kept her eyes on the constellation Pyxis as she spoke.
“What if I told you that there are magical creatures, Gemma. Real life magical creatures,” she said.
“Like, unicorns?” Gemma asked, drying her eyes. Her mom’s question had thrown her, and she was definitely going to need more information before returning to her fit of crying.
“Yes, unicorns. And sea monsters and centaurs and griffins and mermaids and so many more,” Gemma’s mom answered.
Gemma’s eyes were wide with wonder. These were some of her favorite things to talk about in the world. But, rarely, were they brought up by people who were not her.
“And what if I told you there’s a map that tells you how to find them all? What would you say?” asked her mom.
Gemma thought long and hard. Her tears already drying in the corners of her eyes.
“I’d say that’s the most greatest treasure in the world.”
Gemma’s mom turned to her daughter and laughed.
“I think that’s what we’ll call it then,” she said, crouching down and hugging her daughter. “We will go find the treasure and come back to you. But Gemma?”
“Yes,” she answered, hugging back with all her might.
“You will always be our greatest discovery. There is nothing more precious to us than you.” Gemma’s mom held her out and looked her in the eyes. “That’s why we named you Gemma.”
Tears found Gemma again, years later, on the deck of The Dusty Rust Busket.
“I forgot,” she said aloud. “I didn’t think she… could it really be true?”
Milo’s tail curled around her neck as he leaned in closely to the map.
It covered all the world and the Eight Seas. There were drawings of fantastical creatures and landmarks and dotted paths to sail them there. It was a map to magical creatures. It was the treasure that her family had been searching for since she was a child.
“Wonders unseen,” whispered Gemma. “And everyone is looking for them.”
Gemma licked her finger and held it up to check for wind. She cleared off a small table on the deck and laid the map out, holding it down with a metal gear and clay mug. Searching through a box of cloth, Gemma tore off a thin strip of ribbon and made a second braid in her hair. At the helm of The Dusty Rust Busket, Captain Gemma turned the ship towards the Cascade Sea.
Milo climbed onto the bow of the boat and felt the cool air on his face.
“Everyone’s looking for them,” Gemma shouted over the sea. “And we’re going to find them.”
On Marsan Island, in the mild southern waters of the Cascade Sea, Gemma and Milo trekked up a grassy hill. The wind was blowing them forward, pushing them towards the top. A dozen small streams lined with mossy rocks wove in and around the grass at their feet. The blue sky connected to the sea all around them.
They had traveled for weeks, through harsh waves and fierce storms. They were the kind that only an experienced sea captain could navigate. Lucky for us, Gemma was that, and more. She and her “first primate” Milo, as he was now officially called, had made it to their first stop: a small island, that no-one had ever heard of, but someone had named a lifetime ago. An island that only one map in the world could take you to. There were few alive who knew it by name, and fewer still who knew how to pronounce it. As it happens, Dear Friend, I must admit that I am not one of them.
Gemma held the map out in front of her. She enlisted a trick that she had learned soon after inspecting it. For reasons unknown to her, when Gemma pulled on a section of the map, it would expand, becoming larger and more clear. New words would appear with finer details. It was beyond the abilities of any map that Gemma had ever seen. It was how she navigated the Strait of Hornsway. It was how she found the secret turn in the rocky waters of the Mosaic Sea. It was impossibly magical. But then, most of what had happened since Gemma started her adventure was, too. And according to her map, there was something even more magical up ahead. Something worth protecting with an ancient guild of explorers, shielding with riddles, and hiding away on a secret map.
Gemma and Milo came to the top, the crest, of the hill. The wind blew past her face and then stopped as she looked down on a green valley. The rolling hills were breathtaking. But they were nothing compared to what she saw next. Down the slope, in a small bright clearing, twelve unicorns were grazing.
For the first time in her life, Gemma was speechless. Milo was equally speechless, but much more used to it. As they walked towards the unicorns, they couldn’t know what lay ahead, but then again, that’s always the way with adventurers.
And so, Dear Friend, now the story has been told, for the first time, but maybe not the last.
That, as a handsome mustachioed sea merchant once said, is up to you.
The harbormaster of Harbortown was well-known for being selective. He looked after well the boats of locals, friends, and those who paid him for protection. Uncle Horace was all three. Given the bounty of loot he had discovered in a wreck somewhere in the south current of the Azul Sea, he’d thought it best to slip the harbormaster an extra twenty starlings to keep a watchful eye. There would be no bandits or young mischief-makers disturbing his boat, The Singing Nomad, for as long as he held port.
So, it was at the Starlight Tavern, enjoying a pheasant pot-pie, that a sealed letter found Horace, delivered by a local messenger girl.
She waited for a rare moment between bites to make herself known at the far end of his booth.
“Excuse me sir, are you Captain Horace—“
“Captain Horace is fine,” he interrupted. “What can I help you with?’ he added kindly.
“Been holding onto this for you for a good week now,” she said, handing him the letter. It was a silver material that shined almost to a glow. “It looks important. Never seen anything like it before come this way.”
Horace’s first name was written on the front in an impressive form of cursive long forgotten by the sailors and merchants with whom he did business. He flipped it over and inspected the wax seal, which had bright hues of green and blue and orange and pink. It was imprinted with a circle, which had a great tree in the center.
He slid a short candle over and pushed aside the almost empty pot-pie tin. Horace reached for a the knife on his belt and opened the letter with ease. The young girl watched his eyes as he scrolled through the words:
“Dear Unknown Explorers,
It is not lightly that I break my solitude to write you. As you know, I have been charged with keeping a secret from long ago. In truth, I keep but a part of this secret. A piece of a path.
I was informed that this secret has been under attack from a former member of our guild. In times such as these it is my duty to report on any happenings. Three weeks ago, I was visited by someone on their path to the secret. They were both determined and capable of finding it.
I find it equally important to report that it was not a former member of our guild, nor was it a current member. It was a young girl named Gemma, and her lemur companion.
Do with this information what you will. Feeling that I have fulfilled my duties, I shall depart from my post and return to exploring. There are many maps still yet to draw.”
The signature was written with the most beautiful penmanship that Horace had ever seen.
The young girl noted when he was finished and took a shy step forward.
“I don’t mean to pry sir, but we’ve all been wondering what was in the letter. Was it a secret message? The seal was a tree of some kind right? Is that part of the secret? I really don’t mean to pry sir, but…”
Horace raised his hand slowly. He reached inside a pouch at his waist with the other hand and placed five starlings on the table for her.
“You’ve done your job very well, friend. And I thank you for it…”
He stood up from the table and rolled the letter into a large sack on his shoulder.
“But secrets cannot survive such questions.”
As he walked past her, he bowed his head slightly and put on his tricorn hat.
“And the tree that you speak of is called a Willow.” he finished.
With that, Horace left the tavern and set off to find his first mate to ready the crew for an early departure.
Gemma’s father pulled out his weathered tome and flipped to the worn section with scribbled drawings from ancient caves. It was the same as it was the last time he checked. And the time before that. And each of the fourteen times that he had checked on their way to the ruins.
He placed the book on the ground and held the pages down with two odd shaped rocks. He pointed to the east and noticed the same hills that were drawn on the pages at his feet. He pointed to the west and found the small forest, exactly where it should be. This was the place.
“Any luck?” Gemma’s mom asked, as she cut through some brush and caught up.
“Not yet,” he replied. “But this must be the place. These ancient texts describe a creature that could only be one thing…”
“They haven’t lived here for centuries, Arthur,” she said.
He glanced at the book one more time then lowered his hands.
“It’s here. I can feel it,” he insisted.
“Just like you felt it in the Slithering Sea. And just like you felt it on Mount Thorn? And just like—”
“This is different, Jean,” he interrupted with a frown.
She came and stood by his side. Her tone changed.
“I believe it,” she said, grabbing his hand.
He looked around the stone ruins.
“I don’t know what I expected: that some mythical creature would be waiting for us with bells on?”
Jean smiled. “We’ll just keep looking. I’m sure there’s some page in that book that you haven’t read yet that tells you exactly where to find them.”
They both laughed, knowing that there was no page in the book that hadn’t been read a dozen times, and then a dozen times more. Arthur sighed and bent down to pick up the book. As he lifted it up to his chest, the rocks tumbled down and caught his eye. He stared at the ground by his feet for a few seconds. He stared at the exact same spot that he had covered up with his book.
“Yes?” she replied.
Arthur didn’t have to say a word. She followed his eyes until they both saw a footprint that had only ever been seen in drawings. The footprint of a phoenix.
Charles Bucket arrived back at his mansion with debris and muck in his hair that he was yet to notice. His jaguar followed behind, with his head down and his paws sore. His bell was no longer jingling, having been filled with dirt and specks of leaf.
Charles called for his servant and dropped his hat onto the ground next to the door.
“Sanders!” he shouted.
A shorter, stout man came rushing from three rooms away and skidded to a halt in front of the pair.
“Sir, are you all right?” he asked with a shocked face.
“Nevermind that. Draw me a bath,” Charles barked.
Sanders, usually quick to do as he was told, stood there for a moment with all the questions in his head.
“NOW!” shouted Charles Bucket.
Sanders nodded and rang a bell from the mahogany stand at his side. Two older servants came shuffling in next to him.
“Go and make Captain Bucket a bath. Extra heat and extra soap.” They bowed and shuffled down the great hall behind them.
“Sanders, take down a list,” Charles started. Sanders whipped out a piece of paper from his vest pocket and pulled out a pencil, ready to write. “I need a new boat. No trickery this time. A vessel worthy of me. The largest you can buy. And get me a crew of sailors, NO… make that pirates. And bring me Professor Roderick. I require something… different.”
Sanders nodded and hid the paper back into his pocket and then reached down to grab the jaguar’s collar. The jaguar nuzzled up to Sanders with a small purr. Sanders gave him a secret pet and smile, making sure that Charles could not see.
“I’ll take him back to the South Wing,” Sanders said.
Charles made off down the great hall towards the baths with a half wave and hardly a grunt.
Sanders led the jaguar to the grand door at the entrance of the South Wing. He pushed it open with his free hand to reveal an enormous chamber. It was filled with ten separate pens. Toucans, lizards, bison, giraffes, lions, armadillos, hawks, horses, and zebras where just some of the hundreds of creatures that occupied the caged habitats. With a technique that he had learned the hard way, Sanders opened the gate to the nearest pen and swiftly shut it behind the jaguar, who was greeted by his family with purrs and nuzzles and licks. Sanders reached into his other vest pocket and took out a snack, tossing it inside to the jaguars and their cubs.
Then, he hurried out of the South Wing and shut the grand door behind him. He would spend the afternoon sending for various merchants and traders, and his least favorite person in the world, Professor Roderick.