Sunlight streamed through branches and limbs overhead as boys ran through the woods on that fateful midsummer day on the path to a rumored watering hole fueled by a clandestine waterfall. The boys strained their necks and cupped their ears, listening for the gentle hum of the mysterious cascade whispered to them in rumors and hearsay by kids twice their age.
They were driven. With a fervor that powered their shaking legs and slender limbs, they ran. And they ran, and they ran, and they ran, ever hoping they would find the secret path to the hidden waterfall where they could swim forever in crisp waters amidst harmless minnows in that sweltering heat.
They first heard the bubbling water and spread out to find it. Deer fled hidden paths ahead of them. Foxes retreated to their dens. The whole forest sensed their approach and cleared the way as though they were Hebrews crossing the Red Sea.
And then they discovered the lonely watering hole and its magnificent building-sized cascade over a hillside. It called to the little men in words that spoke of cleansing and relief and fun. They heard the call and answered with complete disregard, peeling off their sweat-drenched shirts and shorts and jumping into the mountain ice-chilled waters in naught but their underthings.
And they swam. They splashed around in shoulder-deep waters, cupped minnows in their hands, sunk their toes into smooth river rocks and rough sand, and bathed under the cascading waterfall until they were cool and clean and as happy as birthday boys.
As boys do, they let their imaginations control them. First, they were magnificent forest beasts come for a swim. Then they were Arthurian knights of old finding a haven on a divine quest for a relic of great power. They played at Captain Planet and Power Rangers and mountain climbers and princes and kings, and they clawed at moss-slick boulders in their bleached tighty-whities their mothers spent time pressing and starching, racing to the top of the cascade in a game of “king of the mountain.”
Although the boys were ignorant, there are those wise enough to know that all fun must come to an end. And it did that day in the form of jagged rock and crimson red. The mighty king of the mountain, the oldest and strongest of the boys, slipped on slick rock and slid down the cascade with his bare skin as the sled.
Razor-like rock sliced into his skin like cheese against a grater. His starched, white underwear was now stained with blood that ran freely from dozens of sharp wounds while his friends reached out for him to save him from a lethal fall.
They caught him, but the damage was done. Their leader and their king was broken. His blood tainted the crystal clear swimming hole forever.
The boys panicked, as boys do, and they imagined the worst possible outcome. Their friend was going to die. They would be in so much trouble. They might go to jail or worse: be yelled at by their parents and grounded until they were old and gray.
With their leader injured and bleeding, they fought over what to do until the quietest among them, a year younger and a foot shorter, picked up an arm and demanded the others helped. And they did. The uninjured boys, four in number, each grabbed a limb and carried their leader down the hill as he cried and screamed, a trail of lost blood staining the ground behind him. T-shirts and shorts and shoes and socks were forgotten that day and were claimed by the woods forever.
The boys rushed down path and trail, lifted their friend above fallen trees and across secret tributaries. They did their best to remember the way, but, like lost cats, they got scared, picked a direction, and ran barefoot through the woods.
And as their skin became slick with sweat and blood and their white underthings turned a color that would make the Red Ranger jealous, they despaired.
Thorns poked at their feet. Their legs and arms became sticky with sap. Pricker bushes sliced their arms and legs. And the woods around them transformed from disorderly hodgepodges of leafy greens to dark and frightening rows of pine.
“We’re lost!” one boy cried.
“I wanna go home!” another lamented.
“It hurts so much!” their injured friend screamed. “Leave me! It’s too late for me. I’m just slowing you down!”
But they weren’t going to leave him. He was the strongest among them. He was their leader and going there wasn’t his idea. They carried him through the pine trees while gashes on his back and legs and arms twisted and bled until, at last, they saw signs of life.
First, there was a beer bottle discarded in the woods. Then a tattered plastic bag forever snagged in a thorny bush. Then a half-fallen fence they struggled to hoist him over until, at last, they were in a field with the highway in sight. They knew where they were. Found again.
The boys reached the road and rested their friend belly-down on the sun-scorched pavement, cracked and faded by decades of winter cold and summer heat. And they waved at passing cars like maniacs in their rust-colored underthings with their friend’s tears wetting the ground beneath him until their luck turned.
A rusty, green pickup truck pulled up alongside. The fallen boy’s father looked out with horror and rage in his eyes.
“You stupid boys! Get in!”
They hauled their friend into the truck bed and crouched down as wind ripped around them, each holding onto their injured friend’s limbs for fear they may all tumble out until the truck screeched to a halt and they were all rushed into an emergency room now dirtied by dozens of red footprints left in their wake.
And as their friend was rushed behind scary doors and blankets were wrapped around them, the surviving boys waited and cried.
Hundreds of stitches, scars that would last the rest of his life, and the ire of disappointed parents was the price they paid for an innocent day in the woods. And yet as their buddy mended and healed, they dismissed their ordeal and new adventures replaced it.
Years later, the now men, finally mustered the courage to return to that tranquil waterfall again. Only this time it wasn’t quite as grand. It certainly wasn’t as pure. And when they arrived, a garland of long-forgotten, discarded shorts, shirts, and shoes met them, hung from the trees like magical icons meant to ward evil away.
And their leader, still revered as king by them all, peeled his clothes off down to his underthings and jumped in, his jagged scars glistening in the summer sun.