I hear running water. The sound is muffled. I slip through the willows and white paper birch trees. The stream must be close by. Little breeze makes it down here in the valley. Yet, I can smell a freshness in the still air that was thick with pollen and insects.
The morning dew hangs on every leaf. The sun has not risen enough to burn the excess moisture away. Soon my shirt and hair are soaked. I wipe my forehead with my sleeve and press onward, searching for the source of the ever-increasing sound.
The willows become thicker with every forward step. Their branches slap against my face and arms as if trying to send me back the way I came. The ground itself becomes more uneven. Once soft moss-covered duff has turned into sharp rocks and boulders which invite me to turn an ankle.
I stop to get my bearings. The sound seems all around me now. The birch trees block my view of the sky. Every direction I look appears the same. I begin to panic. Wondering which way to go. I stumble forward. Fighting my way through the vast wall of willow branches. A branch hits my face and I close my eyes to protect them. The ground wins and I trip, striking my knee on a sharp boulder. My hands are cut on smaller rocks while trying to catch myself.
I open my eyes. There, just beyond my reach, I see myself looking back at me. I blink several time to clear my eyesight. There is no mistaking that the reflection of myself is coming from a small pool. the sound is now very loud and I look up into the waterfall that spills through the rocks. The willows converge a few feet above the pond and I cannot make out where the waterfall starts.
I pull myself forward and sit at the edge of the pool tending to my knee and hands. A movement on one of the rocks above me causes me to look up. A small creature steps out of the willows and onto a flat rock. Smaller than a child, it is hunched as if very old and uses a gnarled stick to lean on. It turns and with a voice that resembles rustling leaves, says, “Welcome, apprentice.”